Friday, February 22, 2019

Jenny Willow by Mike Gaddis


Author Mike Gaddis is well known to sportsmen for his many articles and essays in such magazines as Sporting Classics. His collections, Legend’s Legacy and Turning for Home are vibrant, emotional and poetic. Mike Gaddis is a fine writer, and I am quite fond of his work. Jenny Willow is a work of fiction, published in 2002 by the Lyon’s Press. Jenny Willow is what many will refer to as a dog story, but it’s more than that. Gaddis himself is a hunter and owner of multiple generations of setters – bird dogs - which informs Jenny Willow. Gaddis has been hailed as among the best “gun dog writers” out there, along with Tom Davis (see my post on The Tattered Autumn Sky) although I’m not in sync with that label. I think of him simply as a writer and a sportsman. He is certainly part of the editorial group associated with Sporting Classics magazine, and his writing appears regularly in that magazine. Jenny Willow is a great book and worth your time. 83-year-old Ben Willow is a widower and decides to take on a setter pup one more time. He longs for the years when his dogs were his companions, and the pheasant hunting up in the hills. This novel is about his relationship with the dog he names Jenny, and it’s about love, life and how time changes us all. Ben’s story is linked to that of his friend, Clyde Wood, and how Clyde takes it on himself to do justice by Ben and Jenny, too. To say more might reveal too much of the plot. Mike Gaddis has created a gem of a novel, lush with imagery, and poignant in many ways. It’s not a tear-jerker, not exactly, but you’ll find yourself catching your breath now and again and maybe wiping away a speck that gets caught in your eye. There are certain sportsmen whose books I treasure; writers like Guy de la Valdene, Peter Capstick, Robert Ruark, and Tom Davis, but Mike Gaddis is always at the top of the list.

Monday, February 18, 2019

Ambush at Skyline Ranch


Ambush at Skyline Ranch
Pinkerton Agent Cameron Scott arrives at the crossroads town of Willow Branch Creek seeking answers to a series of train robberies. He gets more than he bargained for when he befriends the lovely Becky Drake while defending her son from one of rancher Jim Gilson’s cowpunchers. To complicate matters, an old enemy has come to town; Larry Strickland, who did prison time thanks to Cam, and now wants revenge. Things go from bad to worse and culminate in both a train robbery and a blazing gunfight at Skyline Ranch that forces Cam to use his hard-earned skill as a gunslinger to save not only his own life, but that of the woman he loves.

Saturday, February 16, 2019

Hocus Pocus Universe by Jack Williamson & Queen of the Panther World by Berkeley Livingston


My latest indulgence is another double novel from Armchair Fiction reprinting two classic science fiction stories. Longtime fans of classic pulp know that many of the stories offer mild entertainment, which is fine, but occasionally we get treated to material that is a tad above average. That’s the case here. Both Jack Williamson and Berkeley Livingston were veterans of the pulp magazine market, and each often produced stories that clearly demonstrated their mastery of the genre.  Hocus Pocus Universe is a short, lighthearted story about a misfit named Eon who refuses to accept the world as it, much to the chagrin of his friend, Charley, a science teacher. Jack Williamson is always reliable, although this is a minor work.  Queen of the Panther World is the real treat here. Berkeley Livingston wrote under his own name, but sometimes under a pseudonym. He is less well known as Jack Williamson but published many pulp stories. I’ve enjoyed what I read. In Queen of the Panther World Berkeley Livingston plays himself, a pulp writer working on a story for Fantastic Adventures when his friend, Hank, takes him to Chicago’s Brookfield Zoo to look at the panthers. They are recruited to assist Luria in correcting the problems the male species had caused on her planet. Many of the Armchair Fiction titles were originally published in either Amazing Stories, Startling Tales or Fantastic Adventures, where this story first appeared. Queen of the Panther World is Old School science fiction, written to entertain. It’s a Space Opera all the way.

Friday, February 15, 2019

Wicked We Love by Mordecai Richler


Originally published under the title The Acrobats in 1954, the Popular Library paperback a year later sold for 25 cents as Wicked We Love. The book initially received modest press attention and was compared to Ernest Hemingway’s “Lost Generation” novel, The Sun Also Rises. Interestingly enough, I consider The Sun Also Rises a lesser work for Hemingway, and Wicked We Love does a better job of documenting and exploiting the bohemian sub-culture in those halcyon years prior to Spain’s Civil War. Wicked We Love is well-written and engaging but it’s still a soap opera. Wicked We Love is also not a pleasant book to read. Like some of the best fiction that emerged after WW2, this tale about young thrill seekers is honest and brutal. Mordecai Richler went on to write The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz (1959). Richler was Canadian and received many awards and recognitions, wrote a few screenplays, and several other works of fiction, children’s books and non-fiction. Wicked We Love is well known among vintage paperback collectors, and copies are not difficult to find. Although the writing is good, I found the book somewhat disjointed. Richler breaks the story into four sections of varying length. None of the characters were appealing, including the protagonist, Andre Bennett. Set in Valencia, Bennett has fled America feeling guilty about a girl he jilted, and while in Spain he rubs elbows with the “lost and the damned” and soon connects with Toni, a hot little cabaret girl. Toni’s friend and lover is Kraus, a typical sadistic German. Andre takes up painting, and as his circle of friends expands, the melodrama heats up with plots and insinuations and lustful motivations. By the conclusion, I was rather tired of the whole lot of them, but again, Richler was a good writer and he manages to string together an ending that is perfunctory and unsettling, which I’m sure he intended.

Thursday, February 14, 2019

A Fortnight’s Folly by Paul Renin


Paul Renin was a pseudonym for Richard Goyne (1902-1957). Goyne wrote dozens of short novels under several pseudonyms. This little pulp potboiler was probably a late 1950s reprint. A Fortnight’s Folly was first published in by Fiction Features 1929. These British pulp digests were cheaply produced and scarce. You’ll occasionally find copies on eBay. A Fortnight’s Folly was published by Harborough in London, and the cover art has been attributed to the great Reginald Heade. The tale is about a married man who takes a holiday at the luxurious Moorland Hotel in Dartmoor. Richard Hayden is happy to be clear of his wife, Ruth, and once at the hotel he spies a fetching woman that makes his mind soar. Her name is Eileen and simply holding hands with her sets his pulse racing and those smoldering passions come flaring to life. They soon commence with an affair, and the writing is as clear as a stream but hardly explicit: “Her ample figure had not a flaw in its supple grace. The trivial frock that was no more than a loose bodice about her breast and intended no challenge to the slender, silk stockinged limbs now crossed and in shadow, revealed a bewitching warmth that quickened the pulses of the man now watching her.” The passion and kissing and hand holding are constant. Here the dramatis persona are trapped by lust and raging desire, unable to control themselves, and only the censor and customs of the author’s era prevents the prose from slipping into the pornographic examination one finds limping across the pages of modern romances. A little fun ensues early on when Richard offers to take Eileen fishing, and she responds with “I’ve never so much as touched a rod.” Shall we assume this was an intentional double entendre? There are long stretches of introspection as Richard evaluates his failed marriage while indulging himself with Eileen. “Her passion, as she strained her hot body to him, clung to him, smothered him with kisses that almost touched the fringe of lasciviousness, was incalculable and immense. He was gasping and helpless under the storm of it. (p.75)” After all of the hot embraces, there’s some soul searching, all leading to a twist ending. Very much a product of its time, A Fortnight’s Folly delivers what it promises, although it takes its time before climaxing (!). Happy Valentine’s Day and keep smiling!

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Verses for the Dead by Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child


This is the 18th Pendergast novel. Amazing. There has not been one of these that I’ve not enjoyed, and while I have my favorites, I am in awe of the depth and constant high quality of this series. Verses for the Dead is no exception. It is splendid in every way; exciting and frightening, and cleverly plotted. Preston & Child can still surprise me. Verses for the Dead is a stand-alone entry in the series and follows agent Pendergast and his new partner, agent Coldmoon, in their effort to track down a serial killer. Pendergast isn’t pleased to have a partner, but he handles it with his usual mysterious flare. Coldmoon is a great character but I don’t know if the authors plan on using him again. I hope so. There are some other surprises here as well, including one involving a character named Smithback. I don’t like revealing plot details and spoilers, so all you need to know is that the suspense and tension never let up. There are two editions of this book – the regular edition which is available as a signed copy from the Poisoned Pen Bookstore in Arizona (while supplies last), and the special Barnes & Noble edition which includes a very short epilogue not found anywhere else. I bought the B&N edition. Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child can do no wrong by me. I buy everything they publish in hardcover, and I don’t do that any longer with many authors at all. This includes the books they publish separately. I wait eagerly for each release and this is one happy, avid bookhound and reader. With their fabulous talent at creating suspense, superb characters, and unrelenting action, Preston & Child are the true masters of suspense thrillers in fiction today. Kudos!

Monday, February 11, 2019

Billy Gogan, American by Roger Higgins


I picked up my copy of Billy Gogan, American at Chicago’s Irish Books, Arts and Music festival (IBAM) and once I started reading it I couldn’t put it down. This is a brilliant, sprawling epic story that is at once beautifully written, and fascinating to read. Author Higgins has done his research, but far more important is the fact that this man can write. The prose is immaculate; insightful, measured, well-planned and propels the narrative. The characters are full dimensional, cut from the very fabric of our Irish heritage, and living and breathing on each page. The tale begins in Ireland in 1844, and here we are introduced to Billy, and henceforth we begin to learn how he came to America. The story isn’t rushed, in fact, you’ll be a tad shy of halfway through this page-turner before that happens. I particularly relished the detail of Billy’s travails before arriving in old Gotham. Author Higgins writes this as a first person narrative, and as such, it rings true. The insight and historical background may well leave you breathless. This is a major novel that should reach a wide audience. Gogan’s tale is endearing, heartfelt and perhaps a bit tragic, but at the center of this tale is a story about the indomitable Irish spirit. Published by Solas House, Billy Gogan, American is available on Amazon. A sequel is forthcoming. You can learn more at: billygogan.com. I met the author at the IBAM convention and he’s a gentleman all the way. Kudos!
Author Roger Higgins

Thursday, February 7, 2019

Bogart: Portrait of a Tough Guy


“Bogart can be tough without a gun.”
- Raymond Chandler, from Selected Letters
edited by Frank MacShane

By all accounts he was not an avid reader of mysteries and his meetings with Raymond Chandler were filled with cordial, cocktail hour small talk. But Chandler saw something unique in Humphrey Bogart long before the nostalgia cult grew out of the Sixties counter-culture movement.

Shortly after the 1946 release of the Howard Hawks film version of Chandler's The Big Sleep, he wrote to his English publisher Hamish Hamilton: “When and if you see The Big Sleep (the first half of it at least), you will realize what can be done with this sort of story by a director with the gift of atmosphere and the requisite touch of hidden sadism. Bogart, of course, is also so much better than any other tough-guy actor that he makes bums of the Ladds and the Powells.”

No other actor is so firmly associated with the hardboiled image of a shamus in a trench coat than Humphrey Bogart. A singular fact that takes on added meaning when you consider he played two of detective literature’s greatest creations on screen. The first was as Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon (1941) from Dashiell Hammett’s masterpiece, and five years later in The Big Sleep where Bogart personified Chandler’s Philip Marlowe. Other films contributed to this image, of course, but those two are unparalleled in film history.

Bogart’s memorable films add to his legend as a tough guy: In The Petrified Forest (1933) he steals the show as a Duke Mantee, an escaped convict on the road to oblivion; and in dozens of other crime pictures he exemplified the definition of “menace.” Any retrospective should include San Quentin (1937); Dead End (1937); The Amazing Dr. Clitterhouse (1938) - here Bogart plays a safecracker named Rocks Valentine; Racket Busters (1938); Angels with Dirty Faces (1938); King of the Underworld (1939); and The Roaring Twenties (1939).

Director Vincent Sherman summed up Bogart’s work ethic when I interviewed him many years ago: “Bogie came from the theatre, and all of us who came from the theatre were dedicated, hard workers.” Bogart knew his lines, came to work on time, and got along with most everybody. Vincent Sherman confirmed what I had heard before: “He was a very disciplined actor, hard working, and a wonderful guy to work with.”

But there is another side of Bogart, too; the tough guy aspect of his personality that was so apparent to Raymond Chandler. He was at times a brawler and a boozer. Life Magazine photographer Peter Stackpole once told me an anecdote about the Warner Brothers publicity tour for an Errol Flynn picture. Bogart wasn’t in the picture, but as was required by their contracts, the available studio repertoire made publicity tours, often by train, for various productions. “Bogart got in a fight with his wife,” Stackpole told me, “He chased her three train lengths back to their bedroom and she slid the door right into his face and gave him a couple of shiners. So when he arrived in Hollywood he was wearing very dark glasses.” The marriage of “The Battling Bogarts” (as the press called them) ended shortly after he met a beautiful young actress named Lauren Bacall. For Bogart, this coltish beauty was the stuff dreams were made of.

One of my favorites is the under-appreciated Dead Reckoning (1947) opposite Lizabeth Scott. Bogart, trying to uncover his pal Johnny’s murderer, tells Scott where he last saw Johnny: “On a slab in the morgue, burned to a crisp.”

Bogart was a natural with hard-boiled dialogue and Dead Reckoning has a high quota of memorable lines: “…go ahead. Put Christmas in your eyes and keep your voice low. Tell me about paradise and all the things I’m missing. I haven’t had a good laugh since before Johnny was murdered.”

He could be insipid, laconic, and witty in the same breath. And he sometimes said things to upset people simply to gauge their reactions. Bogart once allegedly said to writer John Steinbeck: “Hemingway tells me you’re not all that good a writer.” And he once looked at Frank Sinatra and said: “They tell me you have a voice that makes girls faint. Make me faint.”

That might be mythology, or it might be true, but as it so often does, the final word belongs to Raymond Chandler, a somewhat lonely yet brilliant writer who favored a pipe and wore horn-rimmed glasses giving him the look of a wizened, bemused owl: “He has a sense of humor that contains the grating undertone of contempt. Ladd is hard, bitter and occasionally charming, but he is after all a small boy’s idea of a tough guy. Bogart is the genuine article.”

Copyright © 2019 by Thomas McNulty
A slightly different version of this essay was
originally published in Mystery News in 1999 under the title “The Bogart Factor.”

Tuesday, February 5, 2019

The Reef by Keith Wheeler


My first copy of this book, which I still own, was a brown paper, moldy, water-logged and dog-eared edition that I read on the road a lifetime ago to whatever self-imposed bohemian exile I craved at the time. I was immediately struck by the quality of the prose, and that the battle scenes were realistic and expertly crafted, almost as if the author had experienced such battles himself. Years later I discovered that author Keith Wheeler was indeed writing from experience. His non-fiction account, The Pacific is My Beat (1943), is available on Kindle. So is We Are the Wounded (1945). As a journalist for the Chicago Daily Times, Wheeler covered the war, and upon his return continued his journalism career, but also expanded his creative efforts with several works of fiction. The Reef is Popular Library paperback # 403 from 1952. Dealer catalogs usually make note of the paperback’s Good Girl (GG) cover artwork. Set in Chicago, where Wheeler lived and worked for several decades, The Reef is a potboiler on one hand, but also a riveting account of men at war. Wheeler handles Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome before it was called that. The story is about Nick Cotton who survived Guadalcanal and Tarawa, and once back home, he experiences persistent flashbacks to a deadly encounter on a reef, re-living again and again that thousand yards of water that stretched to the beach. A thousand brutal yards that “Nick was trying to wipe out of his mind – night after night, woman after woman!” I suppose at some point a full critical analysis of Hemingway’s influence on war fiction might track some of these neglected but solid works of fiction. In many cases, such as with The Reef, the prose is better than anything Hemingway was publishing by this point in his life, but his influence is quite apparent. Wheeler also worked for Life Magazine and penned many of the specialty history titles in the Time-Life Education Series for the Old West as well as the World War II series. His other novels include Small World (1958), Peaceable Lane (1960), which handles the topic of racism; The Last Mayday (1968), and Epitaph for Mister Wynn (1972).

Monday, February 4, 2019

Ornaments in Jade by Arthur Machen


Published in 1924 by Alfred A. Knopf, the print run was limited to one thousand copies, all signed by the author. I own number # 378. My copy is dog-eared, faded, so much so that only a digital scan and restoration of the title page revealed the green ink they used on the scrollwork. No reissue occurred by Knopf, although modern reprints now exist because the book is in the public domain. Machen’s popularity at the time resulted in this book’s publication. The book is comprised of ten short prose pieces that read like poetry. The sections are not connected and the book seems like a virtuoso piece. I have never encountered any source material by Machen explaining the book’s intent, so what I’m left with are assumptions. With these vignettes Machen explores folklore, sensuality, the pleasures of decadence and mysticism. Ornaments, by their definition, are used exclusively to make something attractive. So Machen has taken his pen, put his mind to work, and decorated these pages with symbols and ideas and story fragments. The prose is often hypnotic: “The old farm-house on the hill flushed rose in the afterglow, and then, as the dusk began to mount from the brook, faded and yet grew brighter, its whitewashed walls gleaming as though light flowed from them, as the moon gleams when the red clouds turn grey.” There is a hint of other worlds, seldom seen, and accessible to a rare few individuals. His topics and minimal characterizations flit across the pages, ethereal, confounding by their lack of depth, leaving us yearning for more. Here, he delivers but small doses; Machen is offering us naught but ornaments. The ten sections offer various topics: The Rose Garden, The Turanians, The Idealist, Witchcraft, The Ceremony, Psychology, Torture, Midsummer, Nature and The Holy Things. Ornaments in Jade is barely 60 printed pages, with the special signature page at the end. As a Machen fan I find Ornaments in Jade at once delightful but lacking in depth. I prefer more, and indeed he gave us more the prior year with The Chronicle of Clemendy, but that book was a work of medieval satire. Ornaments in Jade is best viewed as a prose poem, offered to us as a dessert in a literary banquet. The main feast would include The Hill of Dreams and The Great God Pan, and perhaps The Bowman. Perhaps the book is meant for a select few, such as those connoisseurs that prefer jade over turquoise. Ornaments in Jade might be thought of as a minor work by some, but I view Ornaments in Jade’s ripe imagery and short simplicity as elements that help make it a mysterious but essential piece of Arthur Machen’s canon.