Wednesday, February 28, 2024

Review: "Is Betsey Blake Still Alive?" by Robert Bloch


“Is Betsey Blake Still Alive?”
by Robert Bloch
Ivy Books, 1987


A couple things I like: 1) stories written by Robert Bloch; and 2) stories about Hollywood. So it was inevitable I’d love Bloch’s “Is Betsey Blake Still Alive?”—which was originally published in the April 1958 issue of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine—since it satisfies both criteria nicely. Steve is a struggling Hollywood writer with a handful of production credits, but without a steady gig or paycheck. His life is tough, but as the third-person narrator says:

“Then he met Jimmy Powers, and things got worse.”

Jimmy, at 23 years-old, is just a kid but he drives a late-model Buick, wears silk suits, and has a regular job as a studio public relations hack pulling down two bills a week. The death of an aging starlet in a boating accident, the titular Betsey Blake, puts a major Hollywood studio in a bind. Betsey’s next picture is set for a November release, but without the starlet around to push the film, they’re afraid it will flop. This potential disaster for the studio provides Steve—through his new pal and neighbor Jimmy—a big opportunity to save the film with some slight-of-hand and outright dishonest P.R. stunts like creating a sensation about Blake’s private life and even questioning whether she is dead. Well, it plays out as one would expect, until it doesn’t…
     “Is Betsey Blake Still Alive?” is a sharp tale with a nice twist. The narrative is crisp with Bloch’s shiny prose and the characters, both Jimmy and Steve, are expertly sketched into what I think of as post-WW2 sunshine boys—bright and ambitious in a world ripe for harvest—with a grimy corruption about them. “Is Betsey Blake Still Alive?” is a solid piece of mid-century crime that, almost seventy years after it was written, had the audacity to surprise this 21st century reader.

“Is Betsey Blake Still Alive?” appeared in the excellent 1987 anthology,
Suspicious Characters, edited by Bill Pronzini and Martin H. Greenberg, along with 12 other crime stories written by the likes of John D. MacDonald, Sara Paretsky, Ed McBain, John Lutz, and Brian Garfield.
     According to the official Robert Bloch website, “Is Betsey Blake Still Alive,” has also been published with the title, “Betsy Blake Will Live Forever” in volume two of the Selected Stories of Robert Bloch.

Monday, February 26, 2024

Review: "A Night at the Shore" by Tony Knighton


A Night at the Shore
by Tony Knighton
Brash Books, 2024



Tony Knighton’s third Nameless Thief crime novel, A Night at the Shore, is a fast-driving, exciting, and downright cool heist tale where everything goes wrong in a hurry. Nameless—or the man of many names and none of them his own—takes what he thinks is a low-risk burglary job in the Jersey shore town of Margate; a stone’s throw from Atlantic City. Buddy, a hardnosed poker dealer at an A.C. casino, a fence, and a planner, throws the job to Nameless without many details.
     The target is a degenerate gambler named Charlie. Buddy doesn’t know his last name, but he, Buddy, is convinced Charlie’s gambling stake—maybe as much as $10,000—will be an easy snatch from his home. But for it to work, the job requires a quick turnaround to be timed with a big Atlantic storm forecasted in two days, on a Friday night. Nameless, distracted by his girlfriend’s sudden announcement that she is going away for an extended period (and maybe forever), neglects to research Charlie on his own. A big mistake since Nameless, after being interrupted searching Charlie’s house for valuables, spends the entire night running for his life—from a wicked storm and a cadre of extremely angry and homicidal cops—while trying to figure out why a simple burglary has made him so hot.
     A Night at the Shore is pure adrenaline; from its laconic, muscular prose, to it is compact and tight plotting, and to its lightning-fast pacing. Nameless is an anti-hero in every sense—he is violent, emotionless, and pitiless—but, much like Richard Stark’s Parker, his actions are governed by what is necessary for the situation. He only hurts those who threaten him and his violence never exceeds what is required, which gives the reader permission to root for the villain. Even better, Nameless takes his own lumps along with everyone else. A Night at the Shore is my first experience with Nameless and Tony Knighton’s writing in general, but it certainly won’t be my last.

Click here for the Kindle edition and here for the paperback at Amazon.

Wednesday, February 21, 2024

Review: "The Devil May Care" by David Housewright


The Devil May Care
by David Housewright
Minotaur Books, 2014



David Housewright’s eleventh Rushmore McKenzie mystery, The Devil May Care, is a thinking man’s thriller with a bit of humor—in the form of McKenzie’s first-person commentary and snappy rapport with everyone in the story—and a complex, but nicely compact plot. McKenzie resigned from the St. Paul, Minnesota, police department to collect a multi-million-dollar reward in a fraud investigation and now he does whatever he wants, including doing favors for friends as an unlicensed P.I.
     When McKenzie is approached by twenty-something Riley Brodin, the granddaughter of one of Minnesota’s wealthiest men, Walter Muehlenhaus, wanting his help to find her missing fiancĂ©, Juan Carlos Navarre, McKenzie’s instinct is to walk away. He and Muehlenhaus butted heads during another investigation, and the aggravation of working for the family isn’t appealing to McKenzie. But Riley shows real concern for Navarre and ultimately charms McKenzie by sharing her grandfather
’s nickname for him: “f**king McKenzie”; but truthfully, the moniker losses its luster the more McKenzie hears it. The missing persons case gets on his nerves, too, since Navarre doesn’t seem to exist. And when a defunct street gang begins following McKenzie around and people start dying violently, all he can do is follow the clues where they take him. And hope no one he likes gets hurt.
     Publishers Weekly called The Devil May Care “exceptional” and gave it a starred review. A sentiment I share because everything in this detective thriller works. The characters have enough realism to make them relatable. The plot, which is wonderfully twisty and surprising, has an easy-going attitude and every inch of it gets McKenzie in deeper trouble. St. Paul and environs is drawn to perfection, from the people to the landscape (including all those fabulous lakes). But it is McKenzie that makes everything sizzle with his ironic first-person commentary, his low-wattage Knight-errant syndrome, and his ability to mix and mash with anyone from poverty row to country clubs. The Devil May Care is my first experience with Housewright’s writing, but there will be many more since finishing that last page made me a little sad.

Click here for the Kindle edition and here for the paperback at Amazon.

Monday, February 19, 2024

Women Wrote the Future, Vol. 1: Tales from Galaxy


Women Wrote the Future, Vol. 1: Tales from Galaxy is an extravaganza of great science fiction written by women and published in Galaxy in the 1950s. It is available now at Amazon. Story notes, which include a little about the story’s author, accompany each tale. Keep reading for the book’s Introduction, written by the enigmatic J. LaRue. With a little luck a second volume will appear soon.

Women Wrote the Future, Vol. 1: Tales from Galaxy

Edited by J. LaRue

Vintage Lists, 2023




A mythology in science fiction circles—academia and readership alike—claims women were excluded from the genre until the late-1960s and early-1970s, when writers like Joanna Russ, Ursula K. Le Guin, and Octavia E. Butler jumped the sexism barrier that had kept women out. While these writers are culturally important, both inside and outside the genre, it is nonsense to imagine they appeared on the science fiction scene without precedence. The first woman to publish a story in a science fiction magazine was Clare Winger Harris when her tale, “The Fate of Poseidonia” was published in the June 1927 issue of Amazing Stories.

It was that same pulp, Amazing Stories, that created the entire modern science fiction genre when its first issue hit newsstands in April 1926. And those first few years, between 1926 and 1929, were a dark period for women and science fiction because only 17 stories by six known female authors were published. The next ten years (1930 – 1939) weren’t much better with 62 stories by 25 women published, but the 1940s saw a significant gain with 209 stories by 47 female writers, and in the 1950s women exploded on the scene with 634 tales, by 154 writers. While these numbers represent a slim ratio of the total number of science fiction stories published during this period, it was a beginning that ultimately led to the celebration of women as some of the best writers in the genre.*

This anthology, which is intended as a tribute and to bring attention to these early female writers, is a survey of the fiction published by the most respected science fiction magazine of the 1950s: Galaxy. Galaxy’s first issue reached newsstands in October 1950. The list of contributors for that issue included many of the genres’ brightest stars: Theodore Sturgeon, Richard Matheson, Fritz Leiber, and Isaac Asimov. It also started a trend of publishing women writers by publishing Katherine MacLean’s brilliant novelette, “Contagion” (which, unfortunately, isn’t included in this collection). Although three other marvelous stories by MacLean—“Pictures Don’t Lie” (Aug. 1951), “The Snowball Effect” (Sep. 1952), and “Games” (Mar. 1953)—are scattered across its pages.

Over the rest of the 1950s, Galaxy published 30 stories written by thirteen women. The tales ranged from imaginative adventures—Rosel George Brown’s “From an Unseen Censor” (Sep. 1958)—to cultural critique, “One Way” by Miriam Allen deFord (Mar. 1955), to homegrown silliness, with a feminist bent, like Ruth Laura Wainwright’s “Green Grew the Lasses” (July 1953). These stories, along with thirteen others written by women and published by Galaxy in the 1950s, are reprinted in Women Wrote the Future, Vol. 1: Tales from Galaxy. And frankly, they are some of the best tales to appear in Galaxy during its 30-year run.

Included are gems by genre stars like Katherine MacLean, as mentioned above, and Betsy Curtis, and rising stars like Rosel George Brown. Each story and its author are briefly introduced and while some of the writers are little-known with only a few publishing credits, others had impressive careers both in and out of science fiction. Miriam Allen deFord—“One Way” (Mar. 1955) and “The Eel” (Apr. 1958)—was a suffragette, wrote for Nation, and won an Edgar Award for Best Crime Fact Book. Phyllis Sterling Smith—“What is POSAT” (Sep. 1951)—attended Stanford and Tufts, she worked for the Psychological Testing Corporation, and she was an energy consultant for the Environmental Protection Agency. Ann Warren Griffith—“Zeritsky’s Law” (Nov. 1951)—attended Barnard College, piloted as a WASP in WW2, and wrote for The New Yorker and The Atlantic. And those are only three of the 12 writers inside this anthology.



*publishing statistics come from Partner in Wonder, by Eric Leif Davin [Lexington Books, 2006]

Click here for the Kindle edition and here for the paperback at Amazon.

Table of Contents


“Games” – Katherine MacLean / “The Pilot and the Bushman” – Sylvia Jacobs / “One Way” – Miriam Allen deFord / “Rough Translation” – Jean M. Janis / “Pictures Don’t Lie” – Katherine MacLean / “The Vilbar Party” – Evelyn E. Smith / “What is POSAT?” – Phyllis Sterling Smith / “Green Grew the Lasses” – Ruth Laura Wainwright / “The Trap” – Betsy Curtis / “Know Thy Neighbor” – Elisabeth R. Lewis / “Tea Tray in the Sky” – Evelyn E. Smith / “Homesick” – Lyn Venable / “The Snowball Effect” – Katherine MacLean / “Zeritsky’s Law” – Ann Griffith / “From an Unseen Censor” – Rosel George Brown / “The Eel” – Miriam Allen deFord

Click here for the Kindle edition and here for the paperback at Amazon.


Wednesday, February 14, 2024

Review: "Turnabout" by Jeremiah Healy

by Jeremiah Healy
Leisure Books, 2005


Turnabout—which was originally published by Five Star in 2001—is an appealing, slow-paced, and surprising crime novel by the author of the John Francis Cuddy mystery series. Matthew Langway, a former FBI agent turned Boston private detective, is in a bind. His partner has been siphoning money out of their partnership and, worse, he has been stealing from their clients. So, with a desperate need for cash, Langway reluctantly agrees to investigate the kidnapping of the mentally-handicapped Kenny, the great-grandson of a wealthy former U.S. Army general, Alexander Van Horne. Langway’s reluctance comes from Van Horne’s insistent that the authorities be kept out, but the promise of a $10,000 payday convinces Langway to take the job anyway.
     The estate’s security is top-notch—cameras, guards, alarms, fences, and gates—which leads Langway to think the kidnappers had inside help. A notion supported by the rapacious Van Horne family; every one of them residents of the estate where Kenny lived and with something to gain from the boy’s death.
     Turnabout is fascinating and literate, but its unhurried pacing and dark nature may put some readers off. The thematic focus on the past, particularly old secrets, is reminiscent, while not quite as satisfying, as Ross Macdonald’s Lew Archer books. A similarity that kept me turning the pages until the narrative picked up about a third of the way in. Along the way it becomes clear nothing in Langway’s world is simple and obvious. Everything is suspect. Then the climactic scene—with the surprise of a swinging axe—twists into a marvelous, almost breathtaking, surprise.
     Turnabout is set in the late-1980s and—keep in mind this is all speculation on my part—it was likely written about that same time. Healy (perhaps) was unable to find a publisher, or he simply put the manuscript away and went on to other projects. But then Five Star—known for publishing “trunk novels” by established mystery writers for the library market in the early-2000s—brought Turnabout out in 2001 and a few years later Leisure Books issued a mass market reprint. But no matter Turnabout’s history, I’m glad it had a public life because the characters, the story, and the complex ideas about morality and ethics, or the lack of any, keep dancing long after the final pages are done.

Click here for the paperback at Amazon.

Monday, February 12, 2024

Repairing Jeff Clinton's Wanted: Wildcat O'Shea


In the late hours I tell myself I’m a reader, not a collector, which is (mostly) true and so I’ve never had a problem repairing books for the purpose of making them readable. I’ll use glue, tape, and pretty much anything else I can think of to keep the pages intact, the spine solid, and the cover attached.

In a recent purchase of a lot of five Wildcat O’Shea westerns, by Jeff Clinton (Jack M. Bickham), Wanted: Wildcat O’Shea came with a split spine, a few pages falling out, and the cover completely detached. So, in my amateurish ways I made it readable again with glue, clamps, and patience. Will it stand the test of time? Maybe not, but I’m certain I’ll be able to read it before it falls apart.

The photographs below tell the story much better than I can… Unfortunately, I failed to photograph the spine before repairing the damaged spots.

Day 1: Gluing the spine… waiting and gluing again.


Day 2: The spine is solid and flexible, awaiting the cover to be reattached.


Day 3: A done deal…


Wednesday, February 07, 2024

"Janssen Tries Again": Harry O's Second Pilot



This morning I realized I needed some Harry O love. I found this marvelous little article published in the January 20, 1974, issue of TV Week, included in the Salt Lake Tribune. While Harry O was—and still is—a critically acclaimed private eye series it made it a scant two seasons. It was broadcast on ABC.

[Click the image for a larger view]

Monday, February 05, 2024

Review: "In at the Kill" by Emmett McDowell


In at the Kill
by Emmett McDowell
Stark House Press, 2023*


In at the Kill—which began life as one-half of an Ace Double in 1960 (paired with McDowell’s own Bloodline to Murder)—is a medium-boiled mystery with a touch of humor, an unscrupulous amateur sleuth, and a rip-roaring plot. Jonathan Knox is the proprietor of the Green Barn. A Louisville, Kentucky, auction house “that flourished like the proverbial green bay tree.” While checking the day’s mail and suffering the results of a late-night Halloween party, Jonathan is interrupted by his pal, Lieutenant Ben Harden Helm.
     Ben tells Knox a whacky story about a construction crew tearing up the sidewalk in front of city hall, digging a hole underneath, removing ten bundles of wastepaper, and then repairing everything good as new. When the construction company bills the city for the work, no one in public works knows anything about the job. But Knox, who has a photographic memory, recalls a tale about a batch of rare stamps being buried under city hall’s sidewalk at the turn of the twentieth century. With haste, Knox purchases the salvage rights to the wastepaper, which was taken away from the site by a phony city inspector, and he drops everything to track down the stamps. What starts out as a simple fraud, or so Knox believes, quickly turns into blackmail and murder with Knox stuck in the middle of the whole ugly affair.
     In at the Kill is a sharp, funny, and entertaining post-World War 2 crime novel. Knox is marvelously shady. He floats bits and pieces of truths, half-truths, and outright lies to every character in the book, and when he gets so deep in the mud that it begins sticking to him, he is willing to do almost anything to escape; except be labeled as a blackmailer. There are red herrings and a twisty plot that never feels overly busy. In at the Kill is a riot, in a very good way.

*In at the Kill is the second book (of three) in Stark House Press’ Three Aces. The other titles are: The Gilded Hideaway, by Peter Twist (1955), and Heat Lightning by Wilene Shaw (1954).

Click here for the Kindle edition and here for the paperback at Amazon.
Click here to purchase Three Aces at Stark House’s website.