Monday, March 30, 2009

CAPE FEAR and THE EXECUTIONERS

There have been two films based on John D. MacDonald's 1958 novel The Executioners. The first is a minor classic of dark suspense that starred Gregory Peck and Robert Mitchum. It was titled Cape Fear and was directed by J. Lee Thompson. The screenplay was written by James R. Webb.

Cape Fear was released in 1962, one year after Thompson's successful adaptation of Alastair MacLean's novel The Guns of Navarone.



The second adaptation was based on the screenplay of the first film. It was released in 1991 and starred Robert DeNiro, Nick Nolte and Jessica Lange. It was directed by Martin Scorcese. The screenplay was written by Wesley Strick.



The first film was the most successful. It captured the voice and tension of the novel--with some notable changes--and did it without the trickery and over-the-top-scares of the later production. Although I must admit I enjoyed both of these films a whole lot. And the novel was even better.

A little J. Lee Thompson trivia. Thompson directed numerous films from the 1950s to the 1980s. His work includes MacKenna's Gold (1969), Conquest and Battle of the Planet of the Apes (1972 & 1973), The Passage (1979), The Evil That Men Do (1984), and Death Wish 4 (1989). He was nominated for Best Director Oscar for The Guns of Navarone.

Friday, March 27, 2009

SCORPION'S DANCE by Warren Murphy

The past several months I have been re-discovering the work of Warren Murphy. I’ve read a handful of his novels, mostly thrillers from the 1980s, and I have been impressed. Impressed enough to have at least one of his novels in my to-be-read pile all the time. The current resident is the thriller Honor Among Thieves.

The title I just finished is Scorpion’s Dance. A novel that I enjoyed, but not for the reasons I thought I would enjoy it—the plot meandered a little, there wasn’t much action, but there was the trademark humor, and the characters where damn fun. The later two I expected, the former I didn’t, but as a whole the novel worked well.

The United States and Russia form an elite joint-task force to counter an active terrorist organization called Tenterallah that is led by the illusive Abu Beka. As the novel opens Tenterallah is executing a successful ambush at Da Vinci Airport in Rome; seven passengers are killed and another 24 are injured.

The surviving terrorists are arrested, but quickly escape with the help of an outside party. At least that is how it seems until the escaped men are found dead hanging—in the hollowed husks of pigs—from a statue of the Madonna in the plaza in a small Italian village. The dead men have two notes attached that read:

“To the killers of babies and women: your turn in the pigskin is coming.”

and

“You Tenterallah butchers have run out of time. Abu Beka, you are next.”

The terrorists quickly become the victims of their own terror and the operation is controlled from the business offices of Mark Donovan. Mark is a wealthy businessman who, along with a Russian KGB officer named Petrov, plans to wipe Tenterallah off the map in a small and very well funded operation. Unfortunately the pair has an unwitting mole on the fringe of their group and as they make the war personal for Abu Beka, Mr Beka brings the terror to their doorstep.

Scorpion’s Dance didn’t focus on the grass roots operation of Donovan and Petrov, but rather it was presented as a wide-angle perspective. Mr Murphy created a world for the two protagonists that included family, friends, lovers, and social events. It also included the occasional foray into the dark world of spies and law enforcement, but those scenes were rationed and used as climax pieces to unsettle and then pace the story; quite effectively too.

This quality made it very different from the usual thriller fare of the 1980s—it was published in 1990—when the Tom Clancy style thriller was king and it was a similar story, but Murphy cast his own unique storytelling on the entire operation. There was humor—the first few chapters in particular Murphy cast a humorous and telling light on journalism. When there is no news, they interview each other. And then do it again. The prose was smooth and very readable. The characters were witty and charming, and the bad guys were bad.

Scorpion’s Dance is an entertaining novel. It showcases Mr Murphy’s vast talent, and while it is not his best work, it is worth reading simply because it entertains in a smooth and easy style. It runs nearly 500 pages, but it doesn’t drag or bog and when it ended I was sorry to see it go.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

The Poker Club Trailer

Good news. There is a trailer for the film The Poker Club available on the Internet. If you don't know it's based on the novel of the same title by Ed Gorman. It was directed by Tim McCann, the screenplay was written by Richard Chizmar--of Cemetery Dance fame--and Johnathon Schaech, it stars a few relatively familiar names including Loren Dean, Judy Reyes, Johnny Messner, and Johnathon Scaech.

To watch the trailer on IMDB click Here.

It looks like Sony picked up the distribution rights and the DVD release is scheduled April 21, 2009.

The description over at Yahoo Movies reads:

Four buddies discover and accidentally kill a burglar--who may not be alone--in the kitchen during their weekly poker night. Their lives and the lives of their families are forever changed by the difficult choices they must make.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

The Covers of First Blood

A few weeks ago--maybe a month?--I followed suit with several other blogs and posted several images of different cover art for Alistair MacLean's H.M.S. Ulysses. I had such a good time with that one, that I decided to do it again. Only this time I've chosen David Morrell's classic novel First Blood. I'm partial to the original paperback edition published by Fawcett--simple, but cool.

The British versions are in the right column and the American editions are on the left.





























Monday, March 23, 2009

"Don't Look Behind You" by Fredric Brown

Fredric Brown is a writer I have heard much about, but a writer whose work I have only sampled. I have read a few short stories, and no more. I recently read his short story “Don’t Look Behind You” and was impressed by not only its entertainment value, but also its style, reach and sheer cleverness.

Justin and Harley operate a small printing shop on Amsterdam Ave in New York City. The two only take enough business to keep the facade of legitimacy in place, but their real business is the printing of counterfeit five- and ten-dollar bills. A business that is doing quite well until Harley is murdered in an Albany hotel and Justin is called in and held by the police. They, the cops, seemingly care less about Harley’s murder and more about the counterfeit shop the two men operate.

When the police finally release Justin he discovers that they are not the only ones interested in the Amsterdam printing shop—Harley had some partners who want to know where the printing plates are, and they don’t treat Justin any better than the upstate cops did. In fact, they don’t seem to care much what happens to Justin so long as they get the plates.

“Don’t Look Behind You” is a cleverly plotted story that takes you in one direction only to quickly and smoothly swerve into another, and then another. It opens with a raw slash of narrative:

“Just sit back and relax, now. Try to enjoy this; it’s going to be the last story you ever read, or nearly the last. After you finish it you can sit there and stall awhile, you can find excuses to hang around your house, or your room, or your office, wherever you’re reading this; but sooner or later you’re going to have to get up and go out. That’s where I’m waiting for you: outside. Or maybe closer than that. Maybe in this room.”

It is told in first person with a twist—the narrator isn’t necessarily who you think it is and the story doesn’t necessarily lead you where you think it is going to lead you. The prose is spot on; re-read the passage above and if you don’t want to read more you’re crazy. But the best part of the story is its plot and the affect it has on the reader. The narrator speaks directly to the reader—not as an audience member, but as a principle character—and it has a chilling effect that made me shudder with bliss in the closing paragraphs.

“Don’t Look Behind You” is a story that you should find and read. Maybe twice. I know that it was good enough that I need to find more of Mr Brown’s work and read it. Hell, maybe hoard it.

“Don’t Look Behind You” was originally published in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine in May 1947. I read it in the fine anthology A Century of Noir edited by Mickey Spillane and Max Allan Collins.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

ALREADY DEAD by Charlie Huston

Already Dead is the story of Manhattan P.I. Joe Pitt. He is tough, violent, and cynical. Or in other words, he is a study of the classical hardboiled loner private eye, with one catch: he is a vampire. In Charlie Huston's third novel he makes the transition from hard-boiled suspense to hard-boiled horror look simple.

Huston takes the familiar, Manhattan, and creates an underworld of undead. They live, breathe, work, and basically do their best to survive without bringing undue attention to themselves. They are infected with a rare blood virus. A virus that animates them, slows their aging process, increases their strength, improves their eyesight, and essentially makes them into creatures of the night. This however is where the generic vampire mythology ends, and Huston's underground world of the undead begins. Crosses are no bother, holy water is just water, garlic is um, garlic, and they have no problem combing their hair or applying makeup while looking in a mirror. Their only real problems are, they need uninfected human blood to survive; sunlight causes skin tumors to grow at grossly accelerated rates; and politics.


The politics are what makes Pitt's world a less than desirable place. The vampires associate in clans: The Coalition, The Society, and Enclave are the big ones, and their major goal is to keep the disease a secret from the masses. Their second goal is to put the other clans out of business, and Joe Pitt, being a free agent, is caught square in the middle.


The plot reads like standard detective fare: Pitt is hired by a beautiful, seductive woman to find her runaway daughter. The Coalition squeezes him to find and dispose of the "carrier" that is spreading zombie bacterium around the city, and The Society wants to know exactly what errands Pitt is running for the Coalition, and why; while the supernatural cult-like Enclave gives Pitt a little surprise of their own. Pitt is caught in a battle of power, vice, politics and downright evil. Before the final page is turned, his life, the life of his client, and the tenuous peace of the vampire clans will all be in jeopardy. Not to mention his girlfriend--his very human girlfriend--will require some damn good explanations for everything that is happening in Pitt's world.


Already Dead
is an original take on the vampire story. The prose is hardboiled and tough. Joe Pitt, the tough guy anti-hero, is a mixture of fabled private dicks Travis McGee and Mike Hammer. He is hard and violent like Hammer, but Huston adds a dash of McGee--an uncanny understanding and humanist philosophy of his condition--to keep Pitt likable and believable.

Already Dead will appeal to fans of the vampire genre, crime and detective fiction, noir, straight horror, dark fantasy and even television's Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

This review originally appeared at SFReader 21-Sep-2006.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Three Alistair MacLean Trailers

A few weeks ago I posted five trailers based on the work of Alistair MacLean, and over the weekend I found a few more. I haven’t seen The Satan Bug, but I have seen the other two films—Force 10 from Navarone and River of Death. I have fond memories of Force 10; although it isn’t even close to the equal of The Guns of Navarone. But River of Death? It stars Michael Dudikoff. Enough said? Enjoy.

Force 10 from Navarone



The Satan Bug


River of Death


Friday, March 13, 2009

LINE OF FIRE by Donald Hamilton

Paul Nyquist is an expert shot. He owns and operates a gunsmith shop in Capitol City and his evenings are spent with a local gangster—Carl Gunderman. A man with whom he shares a dark secret and also a man who is, while not a really a friend, the only person Nyquist feels comfortable with.

The novel opens with Nyquist at the window of an upper floor of an office building. He has a rifle in his hand and a jumpy low-level tough guy at his side. It is a warm day. And when the target walks from the building across the street Nyquist carefully takes aim and fires. The man goes down hard, and unexpectedly, the door of the little office the two men occupy opens by the hand of a young woman who asks: “What was that awful noise?”

The job goes sour in a hurry and Nyquist is forced to take an action he isn’t proud of. The rest of the novel is Paul Nyquist’s dangerous and unhealthy attempts to get himself and a witness out the quagmire of a favor gone very badly wrong. And it very well may be the end of not only Nyquist’s relationship with the gangster, but the end of Paul Nyquist.

Line of Fire was first published in 1955 and it has all the hallmarks of the era; it is dark, sparse, quick and very entertaining. It is filled with an abundance of technical shooting details. The plot is thrilling—there are more than a few jolts and twists that I didn’t see coming. There is murder, betrayal, suspicion, and even a dab of friendship, tenderness and love.

The prose is tight and very readable:

“Four hundred yards is a long way, even for a bullet traveling better than twice the speed of sound. The gun came back at me with authority, throwing the scope up off the target; the room shook with the blast of the .30-caliber cartridge.”

The action is well-scripted and perfectly paced within the bullet-fast plot. The dialogue has the feel of authenticity, and the dark sorrow and regret of the protagonist is done without the self-pity that would turn the reader off. The truly amazing element of the novel is the setting and description. Hamilton creates a detailed atmosphere with seemingly minimal effort. The reader is in the room with Nyquist when he pulls the trigger and that tangible sensibility and realism is carried to the final page.

Line of Fire is, without a doubt, the best novel I have read in 2009—some 54 years after its first publication. I have read a handful of Donald Hamilton novels, mostly from his Matt Helm series, but I have never had a great affinity to his work until this minor masterpiece.

Everything worked; the plot, the characters, the dialogue, the action, the setting, the description. It is a novel that packs more punch than any modern thriller I have read and it comes in at a shockingly short 159 pages. And I can tell you that Donald Hamilton is now on my watch list. Permanently.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

VIETNAM: GROUND ZERO: THE FALL OF CAMP A-555 by Eric Helm

Mack Gerber is a captain in the US Army Green Berets in wartime Vietnam. He is also the commanding officer of Special Forces Camp A-555 near the Plain of Reeds. The year is 1965 and the novel opens with a general officer ordering Gerber to take his entire force into the field near the Cambodian border on a search and rescue mission.

A VIP was in a transport plane that crashed in the jungle. Gerber is uneasy about the orders, but he can’t find a contradicting order from within his chain of command so he takes his men—the Americans and most of the Tai strikers on the mission. The only problem is he left the wrong group at the base. When he returns he discovers the A-555 has been overran by the Viet Cong. The rest of the novel is Gerber’s attempts at retaking his base without getting the hostages—a general officer and a reporter—killed in the process.

I enjoyed these novels as a teenager and I have to admit that they haven’t held-up as well as I would like, but these books aren't bad. The action is well crafted and the men are also fleshed out fairly well in a men’s adventure sort of way.

The prose is smooth and easy to read. It is very much like the style made popular by Tom Clancy; at moments just a little more gritty and interesting. The plotlines are formulaic, but within the confines of the action and plot the authors do an excellent job of creating the visual and emotional elements of the war experience. The bravado and fear and male interaction are solidly developed and help lift the majority of these novels from the usual to something just a little better.

The Fall of Camp A-555 is the fourth title in the series and it fits perfectly with what the authors intended the series to be: quick, loads of action, and entertaining. The heroes are larger than life, but muted and balanced by the well-developed setting. The landscape and climate of Vietnam is well rendered and while the Vietnamese people are not developed beyond cardboard this title, and its place within the series, is an interesting and entertaining novel.

My favorite feature of these novels is the glossary at the back. It is a limited dictionary of slang used in Vietnam. The majority of the terms are seldom used in the novels, but the words and phrases are interesting. I can't vouch for the accuracy of the glossary, but still I like it. A few examples:

CO CONG: Female Vietcong solder

FIIGMO: F*ck It, I've Got My Orders. Pronounced fig-mo.

GO-TO-HELL RAG: Towel or any large cloth worn around the neck by grunts to absorb perspiration, clean their weapons and dry their hands.

LEGS: Derogatory term for regular infantry soldiers used by Airborne qualified troops. Also known as grunts.

The Vietnam: Ground Zero series consists of 27 novels. The first was published in 1986 and the final book was published in 1990; There were also four “super” Vietnam: Ground Zero titles published between 1988 and 1990. Gold Eagle published the series.

Eric Helm is a pseudonym for two writers: Kevin Randle and Robert Cornett. I’ve read—where and when is a mystery to me—that the name Eric Helm is a tribute to Donald Hamilton’s Matt Helm series. Matt Helm’s code name was Eric, and the two obviously share the same last name.

Kevin Randle is a familiar name in the late-night radio arena and ufology. He is the co-writer, with Donald Schmitt, of the best-selling books The UFO Crash at Roswell and The Truth About the UFO Crash at Roswell. He is also a prolific fiction writer; he has written in several genres including action and science fiction. He is also a blogger. His blog can found Here.

Monday, March 09, 2009

Hubble Space Photos: Saturn

I enjoy the beautiful images the Hubble Space Telescope captures. It is the art of the natural world captured without the filter of our own atmosphere. The beauty is monumental and something that past generations were unable to enjoy. It makes me feel the wonder an awe of a child.

It's interesting that as our own world gets smaller and smaller the Universe gets larger and larger. There is so much out there that we have yet to discover let alone understand that it is inspiring and slightly frightening at the same time. Here are a few images of Saturn. A planet that isn't so far away and during the summer months can often be seen Southern sky. But nothing like this...

Infrared view of Saturn.


Saturn's moons.


The black spot at bottom-left is Titan's shadow.


Saturn.


These photographs are credited to: NASA, ESA and E. Karkoschka (University of Arizona). You can view many Hubble Space images at the official NASA website Here. All are in the public domain.

Friday, March 06, 2009

ON THE GRIND by Stephen J. Cannell

Shane Scully is an LAPD detective. He has been on the right side of the law his entire career, but everything seemingly falls apart in scandal. He is charged with intentionally losing evidence and sleeping with a film star who tried to hire him—as an undercover cop—to kill her wealthy husband. He is unceremoniously kicked off the force and as a last resort, since no other respectable agency will hire him, he settles into the corrupt Haven Park Police Department.

Haven Park is corrupt from top to bottom. There is a car towing scam, a local gang that is protected by the department, and so many other little rip-offs and grinds that the department has only one rule: take your share and pass the rest to the guy above you. The guy at the top is the mayor and the reason it works and nobody complains is because Haven Park is a city of mostly illegal immigrants who don’t dare say a word.

There is only one problem for the Haven Park status quo. There is a former boxer—a hero to most of the Hispanic population—who wants the mayor’s job, and it looks like he’s going to win at the polls. And the mayor and his corrupt police department will do anything to make sure it doesn’t happen.

On the Grind is the first Stephen J. Cannell novel I have read. It is the eighth novel to feature Shane Scully and I was impressed. The story hits overdrive in a hurry; there is no idling, no coasting, and not much of anything between actions scenes. The chapters are short and the prose is tight and sparse. It has the feel of a good episode of Cannell’s old television series Renegade—less the Harley, Hummer, and long hair—mixed with a modern and very unsentimental thriller.

It does have two flaws (if I can call them flaws, because it is more personal taste than anything), both related to the other; too little backstory and not enough detective philosophizing. I probably need to define the later. One of the hallmarks of a good detective novel is the unique vision of the world the protagonist brings to the story. The philosophies he / she shares with the reader and the way the ideas illuminate something about the human condition. This shouldn’t be confused with slow and unrelenting minutia, but rather quick and brief punches of insight.

I know what you’re thinking—On the Ground is a police procedural, but it really isn’t. It is a detective novel—almost a straight up private eye novel—dressed as a police procedural and it works very well. But it would work even better if Mr Cannell worked in just a little more insight into the story.

That said, I really enjoyed On the Grind. It is the first Stephen J. Cannell novel I have read, but it most definitely won’t be the last.

Monday, March 02, 2009

Eight for Entertainment -- Summer Edition

I get bogged down with life sometimes—work, family, and every other adult responsibility I have. The days seem to blend into one long week after another; and when that happens I like to find something, anything, to look forward to. Maybe a weekend, a road trip, a visit to a friend, a bookstore or something else that separates the living from the merely functioning. And if I can’t find the time for any of the above I like to hop on the web and visit a few bookstores and websites to find something of interest.

Which is exactly what I did today, and I found eight novels scheduled for release over the next few months that really made me happy. And maybe, just maybe these titles will make you happy, and even better give you something to look forward to as well.

March

Schemers by Bill Pronzini. Schemers is a Nameless Detective novel scheduled for release March 31, 2009 from Forge Books. The product description over at Amazon.com reads:

"Nameless wasn’t supposed to come into the office on Mondays; he wasn’t supposed to answer the phone. On this Monday, he did both. The call was from Barney Rivera—once a friend, now despised—at Great Western Insurance. Against his better judgment, Nameless agreed to mee
t with him. Th
e investigation was relatively simple: a multimillionaire rare books collector had reported the theft of eight volumes, worth a half million dollars. From a locked library. To which he has the only key. The books were all crime fiction and suspense--a locked room mystery about mysteries.

This ordinary Monday brought a second oddball case. The Henderson brothers were being stalked. Someone had dug up the ashes of their late father and poured acid over them, then destroyed the headstone the same way, and left a sign warning that this was just the beginning. Searching for peace of mind and the distraction of work, Jake Runyon is more than happy to bring an end to the brothers' terror."

House Dick by E. Howard Hunt. House Dick is also scheduled for release the end of March, and it is written by the Watergate mastermind himself. I’ve only read one E. Howard Hunt novel—it was something like fifteen years ago—and for some reason this particular title really sounds appealing to me. I hope it is.

April

Hunt: At the Well of Eternity by Gabriel Hunt. This is the first in the new pulp series edited by Hard Case Crime’s Charles Ardai. It is a celebration of the old adventure pulp writers like H. Rider Haggard, Edgar Rice Burroughs, etc. I can’t wait to try this first title. It is scheduled for release April 28, 2009. This series has a bunch of terrific writers involved including a favorite of mine; James Reasoner. I'm wagering these books are great.

May

The Unforgiven by Alan LeMay. This is the third in Leisure’s Classic Film Collection and the second by Alan LeMay. It is the basis for the film of the same name that starred Burt Lancaster and Audrey Hepburn. It was directed by John Huston. The other Alan leMay novel in the series is The Searchers. It's sitting on my nightstand right now. I just need to get it read.

Guild by Ed Gorman. This is a reprint of Ed Gorman’s first western novel. He wrote three novels that featured Leo Guild, and this is the only one of the three that I haven’t read. The other two are terrific. Dorchester’s descriptions reads:

"Guild is a man tormented by his past. He already narrowly escaped one lynching, and he certainly isn’t about to get caught up in another one. He’s just a weary bounty hunter looking to collect his reward when he rides into the dusty Dakota town of Denton one evening. He doesn’t plan to stay long—until an old buddy and a beautiful woman convince him to change his mind. But some folks don’t like his presence in Denton. They don’t like the questions he’s asking and the insinuations he’s making. And they’ll do everything they can to make sure he leaves mighty quick—whether it’s on the back of a horse or in a narrow pine box."

July

The Shimmer by David Morrell. Morrell’s newest novel is scheduled for release July 7. Mr. Morrell described it on his website as a Michael Crichton-type thriller with a David Morrell style. That gets my attention, and I’m more than excited for it to hit the bookstores.But I usually can't pass-up a David Morrell novel.

The Midnight Room by Ed Gorman. Ed’s latest thriller is—it is an original paperback from Leisure—scheduled for release sometime in July. Probably towards the beginning, but I didn’t find an exact date on this one. It sounds awesome. The description at Leah Hultenschmidt’s Romantic Reads:

"It started as a burglary. That would have been bad enough. But when the masked intruder forced Dr. Olson at gunpoint to open his safe, the doctor knew he was really in trouble. In the safe were two DVDs, private movies he had made of those girls he had kidnapped…and killed. Suddenly the burglary became blackmail. But blackmailing a serial killer can be a dangerous game. Especially when he’s as smart—and good with a scalpel—as Dr. Olson."

August

High Bloods by John Farris. I have been a fan of John Farris for several years and this is his first new novel since 2007’s You Don’t Scare Me. A novel that was entertaining and oh so good. I’m excited to get my hands on this book for the simple reason that I have never read a Farris’ novel I didn’t like.

High Bloods is scheduled for release August 18.

It’s going to be a great summer of reading.