Wednesday, December 26, 2018

The Girl Hunters by Mickey Spillane

My history with this book and film dates back to my childhood when I picked up my father’s copy of The Girl Hunters and began reading it. This was the first Spillane novel that I read. Spillane was the only novelist that my father read regularly. His active monthly reading was primarily Popular Mechanics, Popular Science, and other handyman magazines. He built many a contraption from the blueprints in these magazines, and like many of the neighborhood men in the 1960s, his garage had the latest tools. Spillane was a wonder for those post-war readers who devoured I, The Jury when it was published in 1947. Spillane wrote what men wanted to read, and his protagonist, Mike Hammer, said it the way it was. As a kid in love with Sherlock Holmes, Mike Hammer was frightening to me, but he intrigued me. On page one of The Girl Hunters Mike Hammer is drunk and in the gutter. What kind of hero is this? My father said, “He’s a tough guy and he likes the dames.” They don’t call women dames any longer because the feminist-me-too crowd think it’s chauvinistic. It’s not. Dames is a derivative of damsels and was the commonly accepted jargon of the era. You can’t change history to make it prettier or politically correct simply because times have changed and you don’t like the way things once were. Anyway, somewhere I ended up seeing the film version by the Mid-60s with my father at some cheap theater. The film was released in the summer of 1963. The Girl Hunters was the 7th Mike Hammer novel and released a year earlier. As part of a series, it was an odd choice because the plot picks up when Hammer is on the skids and believes that his beloved secretary, Velda, is dead. He learns that Velda is very much alive, but she never appears in the story or film. My predominant memory of the film was of Shirley Eaton looking naked in a next-to-nothing bikini. I watched the DVD recently and she still looks great, and that bikini that’s not a bikini showcased her assets – wink!
First Edition Hardcover
The Girl Hunters marked Spillane’s return to Mike Hammer stories after several years of working on other projects. Some fans consider the second wave of Hammer stories slightly inferior to the hard boiled first six because they believe Spillane’s religious convictions induced him to tone it down a bit. I agree that might be factor here and there in his later books, but The Girl Hunters offers some great bruised-knuckle writing. Spillane had a knack for a phrase, and he could always toss off great lines like “I opened the window and got supper smells in ten languages from the restaurant below...” (Chapter 4) Check out Spillane’s simple but effective description of Laura Knapp in chapter 5, played by Shirley Eaton in the film: “Her hands were cradled behind her head, her eyes were closed and she was stretched out to the sun in taut repose. The top of the two-piece bathing suit was filled to overflowing with a matured ripeness that was breathtaking; the bottom half turned down well below her dimpled navel in a bikini effect, exposing the startling whiteness of untanned flesh against that which had been sun kissed. Her breathing shallowed her stomach, then swelled it gently, and she turned slightly, stretching, pointing her toes so that a sinuous ripple of muscles played along her thighs.”

The Girl Hunters isn’t the best Hammer novel, but I consider it a crucial novel in the series. Ten years had passed since the last novel, Kiss Me, Deadly (1952), and all of the Spillane paperbacks had remained in print. There are several scenes that resonate, including Hammer’s return to his office, and walking around New York in the rain. Spillane is often philosophical in his stories, yearning for a past that has only just slipped by, nostalgic for something good again. He has Hammer stop in a place off forty-fourth called The Blue Ribbon and have a “stein of Prior’s Dark beer” and say hello to old friends. He’s nostalgic, but not a softie. Hammer will bust your chops open with a knuckle sandwich the minute you get out of line. I think The Girl Hunters is an example of a writer being honest with every line. Spillane doesn’t overcook anything. He tells you the story, and it just happens to be a good one.
First Edition Back Cover Photo
I love the film, too, and its stark black and white photography is complemented by the jazzy musical score by Philip Green. Spillane is great as Hammer, and the film is tough and unrelenting. The conclusion, which matches the book in every detail, is stunning and pure Spillane all the way. I recently picked up one of those mass produced thriller paperbacks you see everywhere from St. Martins, a real popular author who shall remain nameless here, and I couldn’t get past the second chapter. Trying to read a contemporary thriller always makes me miss Mickey Spillane. I was fortunate to meet both Mickey Spillane and Shirley Eaton at conventions, and those are memories I’m glad to have. Max Allan Collins is continuing the Mike Hammer novels, and doing a fine job of it.
Once, in the seventh grade, I took a battered copy of The Girl Hunters with me to school to read during the “study hour.” My parents had books of all types lying around the house and I was encouraged to read any and all of it if I wished. My parents maintained that reading was good for the mind. A teacher named Schmidt saw me with the book and stormed down the aisle and snatched it from my hands. He sneered at me. Then, with the entire class watching, he made a long speech as to what scum Mickey Spillane was, and what a lousy writer he was and nobody should read his books. My mother later called the teacher and reamed him a nice, gaping new a-hole, with my mother stating, “Don’t you ever dare talk to my child that way again or tell him what to read.” The book was returned to me and that teacher never bothered me again. My mother had brass. All of these decades later I can make myself smile by imagining that teacher in a coffin and closing the lid. Then he wakes up and begins screaming. I have placed a copy of The Girl Hunters in there with him, and a flashlight. Adios, Mr. Schmidt.

Friday, December 21, 2018

The World’s Greatest Super-Heroes Holiday Special # 1

This publication is part of DC’s ongoing arrangement with Wal-Mart to distribute exclusive 100 page titles. Christmas specials were once common, and this book is a throwback to that tradition. I applaud DC for the effort. The problem is this – Wal-Mart keeps all of the DC titles in their “Specialty Promotion” aisle with the Pokémon and role-playing cards and accessories, and with Wal-Mart’s recent modular-redesign, the DC Comics have been moved toward the bottom. The public doesn’t see them. This is an example of two business entities agreeing on a deal but not thinking it through. This material should be prominently displayed in the magazine and book aisle. The Wal-Mart stores I visited all still have the Swamp Thing Halloween Horror Giant # 1 stacked up, barely visible to the public because they’re down low on the shelf, along with the Superman, Batman, Teen Titans and Justice League titles from previous months. The books are not selling out. Keeping these books low on the shelf is a dumb move by Wal-Mart. Collectors like me know how to find them, but the general public doesn’t see them. As for the book itself, I thought it was just okay. The Flash story is the only original, and the other stories are reprints of recent tales with a Holiday theme. Overall, the stories are good, but wouldn’t it be nice if DC executives wizened up and did a 100 page special of vintage Christmas stories? Folks, if you’re reading this, your audience isn’t limited to pre-teens. And those pre-teens aren’t stupid and would appreciate and understand the vintage stand-alone Holiday stories. Anyway, included here are stories with Batwoman, Superman, Supergirl, Green Lantern, Batman and Harley Quinn. Wonder Woman is included on the cover but is nowhere to be found. This was an okay book but still the weakest of the 100 page releases. It gave me the impression of being hastily slapped together. Recommended for die-hard collectors only.

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

No Traveller Returns by Louis L’Amour and Beau L’Amour

By now I believe that Louis L’Amour’s many fans are aware that No Traveller Returns was his first novel that was rediscovered and partially rewritten by his son Beau, thus making this a posthumous collaboration between father and son. Inspired by L’Amour’s experiences as a merchant seaman before he became a writer of Westerns, No Traveller Returns is a character study of the men aboard the doomed freighter Lichenfield. The book is excellent; well-written, thoughtful and compelling. The key to understanding this book can be found on page 50. No Traveller Returns is not a traditional adventure novel, but rather a literary exercise in storytelling. The lives of the Lichenfield crew are vividly rendered, and so too is a lifestyle and era that has long past. Originally drafted in the late 1930s, L’Amour had captured the wandering seaman’s life, with all of his hopes, dreams and sorrows detailed as a counterpoint to their lives at sea. Each short chapter tells a part of a character’s life, linking them together by the fate of the Lichenfield. L’Amour’s familiar robust prose is present, and the collaboration is seamless. Beau L’Amour deserves accolades here for his dedication to his father’s legacy, and also for demonstrating his own love and talent for storytelling. In fact, I am one who would enjoy seeing Beau write a novel of his own, in any genre, because his talent is obvious. To their credit, Bantam Books has produced a fine first edition hardcover that includes a diagram of the Lichenfield, an explanation of the ship’s personnel, a glossary, and a preface and afterword by Beau L’Amour with a few historical photos that help put the tale in context. No Traveller Returns is a great addition to your home library. Recommended.

Thursday, December 13, 2018

Interview with Christine Lee Managing Editor at The Crowood Press

To celebrate the publication of AMBUSH AT SKYLINE RANCH, I contacted Crowood Press for an informal question & answer session with Christine Lee, Managing Editor, at The Crowood Press

TM: Thank you for joining me for this on-line conversation! The first thing I want to discuss is the growing popularity of the BHW brand. Specifically, what is the best way for American readers to get these books? Can they order them direct from Crowood?

CL: Yes indeed. At present it’s best to order via the Black Horse Western website CLICK HERE! The books can be bought either as hardcover or as e-book downloads. But we’re currently working with the US distributor IPG to make the BHW series directly available to the US market.

TM: Do you accept PayPal payments from the public?

CL: Unfortunately we can’t accept PayPal because of the currency conversion fees, but payment by card is fine.

TM: I mentioned in an e-mail the fact that many BHW writers, including myself, like to brag about the cover art. The BHW titles offer pulp fiction style covers that are colorful and exciting. What can you tell me about the cover art process?

CL: This is the fun part of my job! We have three artists who regularly send in artwork for us to choose from. They each have very distinctive styles – Michael Thomas’s work is ‘soft focus’ and has a period feel to it; Andre Leonard’s work is reminiscent of movie posters; Dave McAllister’s work is more dark and gritty. And we also have a stock of artwork from Western comic strips of the 1950s and 60s. Each month I go through the books we are publishing and match up titles and covers, taking into consideration the physical appearance of the lead characters and the location of the story.

TM: How many Westerns did Crowood publish last year and what is the projected number next year?

CL: We publish 72 BHW titles a year, i.e. six per month.

TM: Can you tell me your view on e-book sales? Are all BHW eventually published as e-books, too, or only select titles?

CL: All of the more recent BHW titles are available as e-book downloads. We bought the BHW list about three years ago from Robert Hale Publishers, and have been publishing simultaneously in e-book and print ever since. Robert Hale didn’t publish e-books, so we are slowly converting the backlist into e-books as well. However, some of the authors of the older books have retained the e-book rights to their work. So there are one or two which aren’t available from us as e-books.

TM: Crowood also publishes many other titles. What’s an average work week like at Crowood Press?

CL: As well as the BHW list, we publish a vast range of non-fiction titles, mainly leisure-related. To list every topic we cover would take too long, but for example we publish books on gardening, sport, military history, needlework, photography, motoring and horses, to name but a few. This means that our work is very varied. For example, this morning I’m working on Westerns, but this afternoon I’m going to be working on architecture and theatrical wig-making!

TM: Does Crowood have any plans of creating a Mystery Brand in the same vein as the Black Horse Westerns?

CL: We have no plans for creating a parallel mystery series to run alongside the Westerns. This is because when we bought the Robert Hale list, this included their successful crime fiction books.

TM: Many of the BHW authors use a pseudonym which are as colorful as the characters they write about! What are the best ingredients for a successful BHW?

CL: Each BHW generally has one central character (occasionally two), who is usually a man, often with a troubled past – for example a retired gunfighter, a reformed outlaw or a disillusioned Civil War veteran (of either side). Occasionally the central character will be a woman, often a young widow struggling to survive or maybe a schoolteacher tackling a corrupt local official. Danger will ensue, sometimes courted directly by the hero or heroine in a quest for vengeance, or else by being forced to take a stand against the villain(s). There will inevitably be conflict at some point, most usually involving a gunfight, but the hero or heroine will always be triumphant. There may well be some romantic involvement along the way, with the hero and heroine finding happiness and true love at the end of their tribulations, in true old Hollywood fashion.

TM: What’s the best advice you can offer a young writer submitting their first book to Crowood?

CL: The first step would be to have a close look through the BHW website, and in particular at our guidelines for submission, which can be found here: Try to keep your work historically accurate as nothing annoys our readership more than anachronisms. The word count needs to be 35,000 to 45,000 words, so avoid lengthy descriptions, focusing more on a fast-paced plot. The storyline needs to be fast-moving and exciting, but also plausible. And please do go through your book before submitting it to check for consistency and to make sure that your plot works. Above all, do check for spelling and grammar – in the past we have had to reject manuscripts because they have been too sloppily presented.

TM: AMBUSH AT SKYLINE RANCH is my sixth Black Horse Western, but I’m also excited about some of the other titles being released this month. Tell me about the latest releases!

CL: Ambush at Skyline Ranch won’t be available until December, but our October Westerns will be out at the end of September. These include three stirring (but all very different) tales of vengeance from K.S. Stanley, Michael Stewart and Derek Rutherford; Will DuRey has a story in which a ranch hand has to make a tough moral choice when his boss expects him to turn killer; violence and corruption in a small gold mining settlement is the backdrop for John NcNally’s book; and Bill Grant’s hero is a disillusioned and embittered Union Army deserter facing his demons. So look out for The Line Rider, Tanner’s Revenge, Dead Man’s Return, Remarque’s Law, A Gift from Crick and Gold Rush – six fast-paced and exciting tales of the Old West.

TM: Thank you!

CL: My pleasure, Tom!

Thursday, December 6, 2018

The War Chief by Edgar Rice Burroughs

Edgar Rice Burroughs only wrote a few historical novels, and The War Chief is my personal favorite.  This is the tale of Shoz-Dijiji, a white boy raised by the Apaches. Andy McDuff, the infant of Jerry and Annie McDuff, Scotch immigrants, is spared when his parents are slaughtered by the Apaches. A favorite of Cochise, Shoz-Dijiji learns the ways of the Apache, although some Apaches know that he is white and despise him for it. Shoz-Dijiji believes himself to be a full-blooded Apache, which sets up part of the plot. He soon distinguishes himself on the battlefield, as great a warrior as Geronimo. Romance appears in the form of Wichita Billings (a great name for a female character), and while Shoz-Dijiji is feared by white people, he also demonstrates he has a heart. His triumphs and tribulations are rendered by Burroughs in typical form, and the story becomes an epic adventure. Burroughs was no stranger to writing epics. His Tarzan novels are among the greatest adventure stories, and so, too, are his John Carter of Mars novels. The War Chief follows the successful tradition of Zane Grey’s Western romances, but with the Burroughs touch. I enjoyed it, and I pretty much enjoy everything Burroughs wrote. I prefer his Tarzan and John Carter novels over his other work, but The War Chief is quite good. His vivid imagination brings to life the waning days of the Apaches and their dominance over the West.  Burroughs is one of the great storytellers from the last century and his books remain in print for a reason – they’re great. Published in 1917, The War Chief is easy to find for Kindle or print copies.

Sunday, December 2, 2018

Murder at an Irish Wedding by Carlene O’Connor

This is part of a series, “An Irish Village Mystery,” and this is the second book in that series. You can read them in order or in whatever sequence you encounter them. Murder at an Irish Wedding is wonderful, well-written mystery. It’s a traditional suspense thriller in the truest way, and I found it engaging and satisfying chapter by chapter. Siobhan O’Sullivan runs a catering service with her siblings, and in the village of Kilbane she is about to assist with a wedding for a celebrity fashion model, except her groom’s best man suddenly shows up murdered. This all happens in the first few chapters, and from then on the plot thickens, and the suspense never lets up. Author Carlene O’Connor skillfully weaves a suspenseful mystery that left me guessing until the end. I thought I had the killer figured out by chapter 7, but I was wrong. Infused with a love for Ireland, and filled with fascinating characters, and authentic details, Murder at an Irish Wedding has easily found its audience, as have all of the books in this series. With a crisp, clean writing style, Murder at an Irish Wedding turned out to fun and relaxing to read as I tried to decipher the mystery. I was fortunate to meet the author in Chicago at the Irish Books Arts and Music festival and she kindly signed my copy for me. Highly recommended for mystery lovers and readers in general.