Friday, March 16, 2018

SOME DIE HARD by Stephen Mertz

Some Die Hard is Stephen Mertz’s first published novel. It appeared as a paperback original in 1979 from the low-rent New York publisher Manor Books, as by Stephen Brett. A pseudonym, at least the surname—according to an informative and interesting Afterword in the recent Rough Edges Press edition—that was a hat-tip to Brett Halliday. The same Brett Halliday behind the fictional private eye Michael Shayne. 

Rock Dugan, a former stuntman who gave up Hollywood for private detective work and Denver, is returning home—after tying up an employee theft investigation—from the fictional Langdon Springs, Colorado. Sitting next to Dugan on the bus ride home is a nervous man who, once they arrive at the depot, panics and bolts, stumbling into Dugan before dashing into traffic where he’s hit and killed by a taxi. The police think the man’s death is an accident, an opinion Dugan doesn’t share because the man expertly passed an envelope to him in the confusion. The envelope’s contents are for Susan Court who, with a dying millionaire father changing his will at the last minute and a no-good brother, hired the nervous man, also a P.I., to uncover a few secrets.
Some Die Hard is a hardboiled locked-room murder mystery—those impossible crimes where the whodunit is less important than the howdunit (and Im not even going to tell you who the victim is). Its prose is smooth, although not as crystal as Stephen Mertz’s latest work, and the story is enjoyable and easy. Easy to read, rather than easy to guess. Dugan is likable and hardboiled. He is big-fisted, clever and carries that sacred Private Eye code. A knight-errand more concerned with justice than law. 

Monday, March 12, 2018

Thrift Shop Book Covers: "Westworld"

Westworld, by Michael Crichton, was published as a paperback original by Bantam in 1974, which is the very edition that caught my eye. The cover is dominated by Yul Brynner shedding his humanity to reveal the robot beneath. The artist: Unknown (to me at least).

The first sentences:

A desert landscape at dawn, all muted grays. The desert stretches for miles with no sign of life.
Westworld is a film written and directed by Michael Crichton. This book features a Foreword by Saul David—Hollywood screen writer, producer and man behind the film adaptation of Logan’s Runa very interesting essay, “Shooting Westworld”, by Michael Crichton, and the original screenplay.

Wednesday, March 07, 2018

A Trio of Reviews: Misfits and Oddballs

On occasion I write brief book reviews to post at Goodreads or Amazon with no intention of featuring the books here at Gravetapping. Over the past few months I’ve done just that with a trio of books that don’t quite fit the formula around here, but each was so good I decided to dust the capsule reviews off and post them here.

IN COLD BLOOD, by Truman Capote (1966)
A classic is a piece of literature that catches its audience by surprise and exceeds the reader’s expectations (no matter how high those expectations are). In Cold Blood, by Truman Capote, is a true and very human classic. Shocking, beautiful and ugly at once. The story of the 1959 Clutter family murders in the rural town of Holcomb, Kansas—two men broke into the Clutter’s home in the early hours with robbery on their minds and murdered every person in the house. While relating this morbid tale, In Cold Blood, captures a humanity that makes it larger than this single crime, or any of the individuals involved, and creates something deeper and more universal.
RAPE: A LOVE STORY, by Joyce Carol Oates (2003)
Rape: A Love Story, is vengeance tale worthy of Joyce Carol Oates’ talent, and its serious subject matter. When a single mother is raped in front of her young daughter, left for dead, and the judicial system falters—the victim’s character is smeared and the rapists are seen as victims—an uninterested party takes an interest to ensure a kind of justice is done. Told from the young girl’s perspective, it concentrates less on the physical aspects of revenge and more on the psychological. The fear, hate, and finally a compromised recovery. A serious and dark story about a serious and dark subject.
WORD OF HONOR by Nelson DeMille (1985)

Word of Honor reads like The Caine Mutiny as a Vietnam story. Ben Tyson is accused of murder for a massacre occurring in a hospital during the Tet offensive, February 1968, eighteen years after it happened. At this late date, as the lone officer involved, Tyson is the only member of the platoon—Alpha Company of the 7th Cavalry—that can be tried for the crime and the US Army opens a court-martial for murder. DeMille reveals the massacre’s details slowly, ratcheting the tension tighter and tighter. The outcome is little surprise, but it ends exactly how it should and even more importantly the novel says something about humanity and war, and America’s Vietnam experience.

Monday, March 05, 2018

Thrift Shop Book Covers: "Flight Into Fear"

Flight Into Fear, by Duncan Kyle, was published as a hardcover by William Collins in 1972. The edition that caught my eye is the Fontana paperback published in 1980. The cover has everything that makes my inner-book-buying-dork stammer, “Must buy, must buy.” Which is to say, an orange airplane with a cool split tail design and a bi-plane with something suspicious happening. The artist: Chris Foss.

The first line:
I suppose it’s been going since Ur of the Chaldees and I’ve no more right to complain than anybody else who has fallen for the old tale of glory in the last five thousand years.
Duncan Kyle is the pen-name for British newspaperman John Franklin Broxholme, born in Bradford, England June 11, 1930. Under the name Duncan Kyle he wrote 14 adventure novels, favorably compared by critics and readers (including me) to the best in the genre, between 1970 and 1993. He died in June 2000.

Friday, March 02, 2018

THE BLOODY SPUR by Mickey Spillane and Max Allan Collins

The Bloody Spur is Mickey Spillane’s and Max Allan Collins’ third Western novel featuring former Wells Fargo detective and current Trinidad, New Mexico Sheriff Caleb York. Max Allan Collins wrote this smooth tale based on characters created by Spillane, for John Waynes Batjac Productions, in an unproduced screenplay.
The Santa Fe Railroad wants a spur between Trinidad and the nearby Las Vegas, New Mexico, but it needs a right-of-way across George Cullen’s Bar-O ranch. The new rail line would increase commerce, population, make Trinidad’s cattle ranchers more competitive, and enrich the town’s business owners. But George Cullen is a tough and stubborn old man, now blind, with no intention of allowing the tracks on Bar-O property. His opinion is unpopular with most everyone, including the Trinidad Citizens Committee, and creates an unusual hostility in town. Alver Hollis’ arrival—a gunfighter known as Preacherman—adds more tension since York thinks the gunman has come to Trinidad to kill. But Hollis’ target, or why anyone would want a Trinidad resident murdered, is a mystery.
The Bloody Spur is an enjoyable and entertaining western tale. Its traditional storyline—Sheriffs, gunfighters, ranchers, railroads—is comfortable and, in all the right places, surprising. There is a nifty mystery included, which York handles with flair and style. A romantic twist, murder, betrayal, a satisfying amount of action, and humor—provided by York’s deputy, the former town drunk—making The Bloody Spur a rewarding journey into the Old West and New Mexico’s high country.

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Interview: Andrew McBride

Andrew McBride lives and works in Brighton, on Englands southern shore. He has written six well-received Western novels known for their vibrant settings, realistic characters, and elegant plotting; each features Calvin “Choctaw” Taylor. His first novel, Canyon of the Dead, was published by Black Horse Westerns in 1996 and his most recent, The Peacemaker, was published by Sundown Press in 2016.
Best-selling Western writer Ralph Cotton wrote that Andrew is, “Among the top Old West storytellers.” And Spur Award winning author Robert Vaughan wrote about The Peacemaker: “This was a great book. 
Andrew was kind enough to take a break from his writing schedule and answer a few questions. The questions are italicized, and as always, the answers are so much more important.
What’s your latest novel? 
The Peacemaker. It’s a western set in Arizona in 1871, when the white man and the Apache Indians are at war. The hero is an 18 year old young man who gets roped into a dangerous mission to talk peace with the most important of the hostile Apache chiefs – Cochise. He guides a duo to Cochise’s camp – a white man and his adopted Apache daughter. Along the way, the hero and the Apache girl fall in love. Fans of the TV Western series ‘The High Chaparral’ will spot I’ve borrowed the basic premise from a High Chaparral episode, but the second half of the novel goes somewhere else entirely. I felt the original episode could be the springboard for a tremendous adventure story. It’s published by Sundown Press and available on Amazon and the usual outlets. 
Without breaking any of your personal taboos, would you give us an idea of what you’re working on now?
I’m not sure I have any personal taboos, I’m not that interesting! I was planning to launch into another novel, but finishing off other projects has put me slightly behind schedule. Right now I’m readying a finished western for some publishers. After that I’ve got to finish off another novel that’s such a complete departure from what I’ve written before I’d have to publish it under another name. Sorry about the mystery but I’m keeping quiet about that one for now. I’ve also got a completed Robin Hood novel I’m trying to find a home for, so I can join my heroes Rosemary Sutcliff and Henry Treece among the ranks of historical novelists. Then I can get properly started on my next novel: a western with an elegiac, end-of-the-west, ‘Wild Bunch’ feel.
What was your first published novel?
Canyon of the Dead. In 1982 I submitted a western called Shadow Man to Robert Hale Publishers. They rejected it – quite rightly, as it wasn’t good enough. A dozen years later an author friend of mine – Philip Caveney – mentioned Hale were still looking for westerns, so, rather than writing a new one I dug out Shadow Man from the bottom of a drawer, dusted off the cobwebs and looked at it again. I re-wrote about half of it, re-submitted it to Hale and they accepted it – only they had another book called Shadow Man coming out. So I re-titled mine Canyon of the Dead. It came out in 1996, 14 years late. As a sort of post-script, I later wrote another one for Hale – again called Shadow Man – and they published it in 2008. So getting one form of Shadow Man out there took 26 years! How do I feel about it now? I do a blog which features authors talking about their favorites of their own books. A lot of authors I contact are very often fond of their first published works. Not only does it mark a breakthrough for us into the public arena, we admire our early work for its freshness and energy even if we’re still working out how to do the job properly – a bit like having affection for your young, if sometimes foolish, self. I have the same affection for Canyon of the Dead, although reading it now, I think it’s probably too busy, there’s too much going on, and the pace is too breathless. As I wrote more, I learned to control my energy and settle down. There’s also one episode in the story – an act of violence I treat too casually - that I wouldn’t include now. But what’s done is done, and I still think it’s a good book and not just a good debut.

When did you first realize you wanted to be a writer?
Age 7. Growing up in England in the 60s there was a TV show called ‘Sir Lancelot’ I used to watch – I was nuts about the Arthurian legend even then. I got hold of a notebook and started writing my own stories about Arthurian knights, until I got that little bump of hard skin on your finger you get from holding a pen a lot. After that I just wrote as a hobby all the time, all kinds of adventure stories. Then I started reading. For the authors I liked I used to think: ‘I want to be like them.’ For those I didn’t, I thought: ‘I can do better than that!’
How do you go about writing?
Where: At home on a computer. I know some writers have to write longhand, almost as if they have to feel the ideas coming out of their brain, down their arm, through the pen etc. Doesn’t work for me! For me it’s all about efficiency, getting my ideas onto the page as quickly as possible, which means bashing away on a keyboard on a desktop PC. I feel cramped using small devices like laptops. I’ve never tried writing in places like cafes, too many distractions. I like to work alone in my home study. I find silence oppressive so I usually have music on – something like jazz instrumentals that won’t distract me.

When: About 1991 I committed to being a writer, so since then I’ve turned down full-time work whenever I can, taking part-time jobs that free me up so I can write at least 2 days a week. It’s not always been possible to keep to that, and sometimes the finances have been precarious. In the last 8 months I had a bit of luck and came into some money unexpectedly, so I’ve been able to live the complete writer’s life, writing sometimes 4 or even 5 days a week. To me, that’s the equivalent of dying and going to heaven! This won’t continue much longer, alas, but it has been seriously great while it’s lasted! I tend to work a day shift, writing from about 10 a.m. until whenever in the afternoon the inspiration flags. I rarely write in the evenings, I like my brain to be fresh when I’m hitting those keys. One thing I learned from Phil Caveney, my writing mentor, is that novelists need to have a time / word count discipline. Give yourself a DEADLINE. For example you may decide you want to write an 80,000 word novel in 2 years. That works out about 110 words a day. Make sure you keep to your routine and write those words, otherwise you’ll join the ranks of would-be novelists who spend 7, 9 or 11 years writing a novel. So hitting my daily (or at least weekly) word count, rather than hours spent, is how I measure my progress. 

As for outlines: I usually have a (very) loose idea of what the novel’s going to be about when I start out, a 2 minute trailer rather than a fully developed movie. Some of my novels have been fictionalizations of real historical events, so that helps provide an outline. I tend to write a chapter at a time, and don’t plan much further ahead than that. I know some writers have to get a first draft of the whole novel down before they start revising. I don’t. I write a chapter and then revise it. It’s usually a 3 day process. Day 1 is the grind of the first draft of the chapter, which I find is the hardest part. You tell the tale of the chapter, you cover the story points, but it’s a slog and the writing may not be that good. But on Day 2 you wake up and re-draft it into shape, which in my case is almost always cutting. I may re-write or re-arrange bits but mostly all I do is cut – like pruning a hedge, or clearing the weeds out of the garden so you can see what you’re after. Day 3 is usually easy – polishing, just doing a bit of tweaking and tidying up. Then I sit back for a few days and let the next chapter simmer in my head until it’s ready to be tackled. Which means by the time I’ve finished the whole novel it’s about 80% done, so it only needs some tweaking and further cutting. If ever I get stuck, I might just write myself some notes, along the lines of ‘what the hell happens next?’ Or ‘How do I get my hero out of this fix?’ I do also have a good friend I’ve nicknamed ‘Dr. Plot’ who I sometimes bounce ideas off. If I’ve literally ‘lost the plot’, he usually comes up with something.  

Do you have any specific pleasures, or displeasures, that come from writing? 
I love the creative process, and the artistic side of a writer’s life. I like the way you can sometimes find creative energy and inspiration in adversity. I once sent off a manuscript and had it unexpectedly rejected. I got hold of the rejected manuscript at 10 p.m. The publishers liked the beginning and the end but felt the novel wandered too much in the middle. Partly because I was smarting from rejection, I couldn’t sleep that night. Instead I stayed up and re-read the whole novel end to end and went to bed about 4 a.m. I woke up 6 hours later and immediately started re-writing, with ideas that just seemed to have come to me. In 10 days I’d re-written the whole middle section of the novel. I sent it back to the publishers and they accepted it.

Like many authors I know, I love the creative side, but I find the ‘business side’ a real chore – finding publishers, agents, sending off etc. I personally don’t mind giving readings, but I find other aspects of promotion tedious. I’ve tried to make Social Media promotion and blogging fun, but essentially I would just rather be writing and let someone else deal with all that stuff. And rejection remains unrelievedly horrible. I’ve had many rejections, and it never gets any easier, or hurts any less. That’s when you cling on to the old writing adage: ‘What do you call a writer who never gives up? Published!’’

Are there any writers that inspired—or continue to inspire—your own writing?
Many writers have inspired me. My first literary hero was Captain W. E. Johns, who wrote the ‘Biggles’ series, which I just devoured in my early teenage years. He gets a lot of stick now for not being very PC and maybe he isn’t but back then I enjoyed his books as your archetypal ‘cracking adventure yarns’ – they were a kind of junior level James Bond. Then I moved on to the historical novels of Rosemary Sutcliff. Getting into early adulthood I was a big fan of Ian Fleming and Raymond Chandler. Mostly, I read/still read westerns, thrillers and historical fiction, all of which you could call ‘adventure novels.’ In the western field that would include Gordon D. Shirreffs, Lewis B. Patten, Robert McLeod, Fred Grove, Louis L’Amour, Glendon Swarthout, Thomas Berger, Jack Schaefer, Will Henry, A.B. Guthrie jnr. and Dorothy M. Johnson. Thriller writers would include Walter Mosley, (earlier) Patricia Cornwell, Robert Harris and W.R. Burnett. ‘Classics’ would include Robert Louis Stevenson (he’s still unchallenged, IMHO, as writer of the world’s greatest adventure novel) the Brontes, Dickens, H.G. Welles and Graham Greene. Forgotten writers I was a big fan of include Alexander Knox (who was also an actor) who wrote a tremendous novel about modern-day Eskimo life called The Night of the White Bear; Desmond Corey, who wrote spy thrillers with a hero called Johnny Fedora who was like Bond only cooler – he played jazz piano to wind down from the stresses as a ‘licensed to kill’ secret agent; and Henry Treece. Treece wrote for children and adults. He wrote two novels on the Arthurian legend – The Great Captains and The Green Man - which are still startling in their originality. I’ve discovered some good writers since engaging with Social Media. For example I gave a 5 star review (something I almost never do) to While Angels Dance, a novel about the James Gang, by Ralph Cotton. I also gave a good review to Merrick by some chap called Ben Boulden… 3 writers I have to single out are Elmore Leonard, Matt Chisolm and John Prebble. Elmore Leonard’s Hombre blew me out of my socks. I’d discovered a western writer who wrote prose and dialogue worthy of Raymond Chandler, hence the saying: ‘No one writes less and says more than Elmore Leonard.’ The first series western writer I liked was Matt Chisolm, who wrote the McAllister series back in the 60s and 70s. His gritty, laconic style, with plenty of salty humor, struck me as quintessentially American - then I found out he was British, which encouraged me to write about the west too. I stumbled on John Prebble and his novel The Buffalo Soldiers. This impressed me with not only the quality of the writing but also that Prebble took some of the most oft-covered, not to say romanticized aspects of the Old West – the U.S. Cavalry versus the Indians, the Texas Rangers etc. – and found something new to say about them. He looked at them with a fresh eye, avoiding clichés, humanizing them without trivializing them. Then I found out he was another Brit! Also Prebble diversified – he didn’t just write westerns, but also thrillers, histories of Scotland and co-wrote the screenplay to the movie ‘Zulu’. Which is the kind of writer I’d like to be, although thus far only my westerns have got published.

What do you find appealing about Western stories, as a writer, reader, and viewer?
As a writer I’ve always been drawn to adventure stories set outdoors. I can’t see myself writing an urban novel. I like having my characters tested by the struggle to survive in a wilderness. For me westerns ticked every box – they not only had conflict and action in plenty but also strong dramatic tension because they’re essentially morality plays about the fight between right and wrong.
They deal with a broad range of moral dilemmas that the settlement of the West threw up: How do you tame a wilderness without destroying it? How much violence is necessary (and how much is excessive) in creating a law-abiding society? How can diverse cultures (for example the white man and the Native Americans) co-exist? All painted on a canvas of great physical beauty and diversity. Which of course is an added strength to the best western TV shows and movies, where the landscape itself almost becomes a character. Look how “The High Chaparral” used Old Tucson and John Ford used Monument Valley. And there’s a lot of tragedy in western history – what happened to the Native Americans, for example, and to the basic environment – that’s the stuff of high drama. Some of the best westerns have an elegiac quality – a sort of lament for a paradise lost. There’s also beauty and poetry in the language, not only the laconic speak of everyday westerners but even in real names. When I first read about the Alamo, and people called Travis, Crockett, Bowie, Santa Anna etc. I was hooked. And you can add to that Custer, Earp, etc., wonderful Native American names like the Comanche chief Talks-with-Dawn-Spirits (also translated as Hears-the-Sun-Rise) the Kiowa medicine man called Sky Walker a long time before “Star Wars”… names to die for!     
If you could write anything, without commercial considerations, what would it be? 
You don’t need to ask me about that, I’m doing it! Anybody who writes in the western genre is writing without ‘commercial considerations’ – but if you love westerns and have to write these books you will. I have written in other genres, two historical novels and some contemporary thrillers/outdoor adventures, but so far it’s only the westerns, which I’d have thought were the least commercial of my product, that have been published.
I know you’re a fan of both Western television and film. Do you have any favorites?  
Actually I’m not a huge fan of TV Westerns. There were lots of them about when I was a kid growing up in England in the 1960s, but I always thought them the ‘poor relation’ of western movies. I don’t like being too negative but they did tend to accept and re-cycle clichés about the western, rather than challenging them. Some of them could also get very soap-opera-ish. You’d catch ‘Bonanza’ for example and half the time the episode would be about a father’s relationship with his son, and didn’t need to be set in the Old West at all. Sometimes you’d catch episodes that were entertaining, occasionally excellent, but not essential viewing.  But my biggest beef against them was their cheap production values. Because of their low budget, many of them were filmed on familiar Hollywood backlots or sound stages, and made little of what is a key western element in my opinion – the landscape, and its physical magnificence. Given my taste in westerns has always run to the outdoor and the primitive that frustrated me. The exception – the one TV Western series I loved – was ‘The High Chaparral.’ It did ‘jump the shark’ sadly, but for its first two seasons the HC was an outstanding show – not only strong scripts and a superb cast, but the location shooting, in Old Tucson, Arizona. That gave the HC not only physical beauty but grittiness and authenticity – the sweat and dust were real! I’ve blogged about my admiration for the HC.
As for film: People ask me ‘What’s your favorite western movie?’ and I can’t answer – there’s too many great ones. A golden period was the 50s so maybe it’s hiding in there. But there were great westerns before – “Red River” etc. – and after – “Hombre” “The Wild Bunch” “Unforgiven” and more. If you had to narrow it right down, I think the two most important people in western film were John Wayne and John Ford, separately (so you could look at movies like “My Darling Clementine” “Wagon Master” and “Rio Bravo”) and together. Of the joint Wayne-Ford westerns it’s hard to find a more perfect script IMHO than “Stagecoach” – the 1939 version – and I’m especially fond of “Fort Apache.” But I can’t pick an absolute favorite. 

If you were stranded on an island and you had only one book, what would it be?
Sword at Sunset by Rosemary Sutcliff. She was a writer for children who ‘found her voice’ writing about early history – the Romans, the Vikings etc. Here she went into adult fiction with the definitive modern take on the Arthurian legend IMHO, depicting Arthur as a Dark Age British war leader fighting barbarians, rather than a medieval king. It’s incredibly deeply wrought, what one reviewer called ‘a bracing plunge into the heroic world.’ She gets to the essence of the story, which is a universal theme of the sacrificial leader who buys the life of his people with his own life. You find that theme in ‘Beowulf’ too, and in the story of the Alamo. It’s deep stuff, with great battle scenes!
If you were allowed only to recommend one of your own novels, or stories, which one would you want people to read?
The Peacemaker. I like all my first five published books, but they were of necessity short, which meant they had to be action-centric, dependent on a fast pace. With a longer book like The Peacemaker, I could slow down a bit, spend more time on character and atmosphere. I could get into Native American culture. I got to play around with a real historical character (in this case, Cochise.) I was able to write a proper love story, and flesh out the women characters. I could provide what John Ford called the ‘grace notes’ in his movies, quiet, reflective bits where not much happens, but they give the story added richness and depth. I was very grateful to my publishers for letting me do that.

Monday, February 26, 2018

Thrift Shop Book Covers: "Marimba"

Marimba, by Richard Hoyt, was published as a hardcover by Tor in 1992. The edition that caught my eye is the Tor paperback published in 1993. It’s a Miami crime novel—drugs and vice—and the cover captures the flavor perfectly with pastel colors, palm trees and a red Italian sports car. The artist: attributed to Cityline Communications.

The first sentence:
Topper McRae had an idea that sweet little Lourdes Martinez had something sweet to offer him on the 45-minute run back to the berth at King’s Bay in Biscayne Bay, and his hands trembled as he turned to close the hatch door.
I’m fond of both Richard Hoyt’s novels—Trotsky’s Run is as good as an espionage novel gets— and this period of Tor paperbacks. If a paperback has Tor’s logo on it, it’s a suspense novel published from the early-1980s to the late-1990s, the chances are good I’ll purchase it.