Tuesday, May 23, 2017

JIMI AFTER DARK (Yep, a Jimi Hendrix novel) by Stephen Mertz

Sex, drugs, rock and roll, ass-kicking, kidnapping and murder. They’re all here raring to rock your world in Jimi After Dark, the latest mystery/thriller from Stephen Mertz.

It’s 1970, and Jimi Hendrix is at the peak of his fame. But behind the scenes his world is coming apart. His music business associates are cheating him. His illicit business associates are hounding him. And unknown forces, playing a deeper game, are trying to kill him. It’s all too much, driving Jimi into a purple haze of alcohol and drugs. So he calls for help, to an old friend we know only as Soldier, and things really start hopping.

Soldier storms into London on a two-week leave from active duty in Vietnam, to find himself in a different kind of war. The world has changed while he’s been away, and Jimi has changed with it. Soldier is thrown into a time and culture he doesn’t really understand, and has to fight, both physically and mentally, to get his bearings and survive.

Jimi After Dark is a multi-layered novel, with several stories rolling along at once. On the surface, Soldier is our guide to the hip London scene, with its clubs, music and counter culture, as he struggles with the cops, gangsters, drug dealers and women in Jimi’s life. On another level we’re up close and personal with Jimi himself as he battles his own demons, past and present, real and self-induced. Soldier’s inner conflict, juxtaposing his Vietnam reality (complete with flashbacks) with the seeming fantasy world of London, is a powerful tale of its own. And underlying it all is a theme of transformation, dealing with barbarians and Buddhists and their potential for evolution in times of war and peace.

There’s some fine prose here, as in “Time is a speeding silver phantom that won’t slow down.” There are insights into the psyche of Soldier (if I had to guess, I’d say his first name is Stephen). There are looks into Jimi’s past (his time as sideman for Little Richard) and present (his uneasy relationship with the German beauty who wants to be his wife). And there are scenes of wild abandon, as when Soldier uses Jimi’s guitar like a war club.

Jimi After Dark is part murder mystery, part political thriller, part war story, part action adventure, part love story and part rock and roll history. The author put his heart and soul into this one, and clearly had fun doing it. The result is a book that will make you happy, sad and thoughtful all at once. You'll have a mighty hard time putting it down. 

Get your own here: 

For further reading, I direct you to Paul Bishop's fine new interview with Mr. Mertz, here:

Monday, May 22, 2017

SATAN MET A LADY, the whacked-out Maltese Falcon (1936)

While gearing up for our presentation of The Maltese Falcon comic, here's a post I've run before about the second film version of the novel (the Bogie classic was the third), complete with the film, so you can check it out for yourself.

The bad news is, this is a really silly movie. So silly that even Warren William can't keep a straight face, The good news is that it stars Warren William and Bette Davis, who are always interesting to watch, even when the movie sucks. And I wouldn't really say this one sucks. It's just . . . silly.

Watch it and see:

To lay the groundwork . . . Warner Brothers had purchased the screen rights to the Hammett novel and released the first (relatively faithful) film version back in 1931, with Ricardo Cortez as Spade. The film bombed. But by 1936, following the film version of The Thin Man, Hammett’s star was flying high, and they decided to exploit it. Trailers for Satain Met a Lady touted it as being from “Dashiell Hammett, author of The Thin Man.”

Because only five years had passed, they must have figured it was too soon for a remake of the Falcon, so they turned the story inside out and upside down and tried to disguise it as something different. And in that they succeeded. It’s different as hell.

First, as you already know, the title was changed. Then the falcon became the Horn of Roland. And the characters got new names, and - in some cases - new genders and sexual preferences.

Sam Spade morphed into a goofus named Ted Shane, portrayed like a maniac off his meds by Warren William. Bette Davis, who got top billing, is actually only a bug-eyed bit player in the ersatz Bridget O’Shaughnessy role. Arthur Treacher, as “the tall Englishman,” fills in for Joel Cairo. Instead of Wilmer the gunsel we get a pudgy dork in a beret. And the Casper Gutman substitute is a woman.

Warren William, who behaved like a reasonably sane human being in the first Perry Mason movies, seems to have completely lost it here, launching into giggling fits or roaring like King Kong with no provocation. Many scenes are so goofy they leave you wondering What the hell was that?, but the worst was the all-important history lesson laying out the origin and importance of the Horn of Roland. The tale is tossed off between gags as Shane and the Englishman cavort around his apartment playing ring-toss with a lampshade.

Sounds pretty bad, doesn’t it? Actually, the film does have its moments, like whenever the Effie character (here known as Miss Murgatroyd and played by Marie Wilson) is on stage. Yeah, she’s goofy too - in a Lucille Ball sort of way - but I like better her in the role than the real Effie in the Bogart version. And the dialogue, while almost entirely Hammett-free, is sometimes snappy.

So. What possessed Warner Brothers to turn the Falcon into a slapstick farce? I have a theory. In 1936, Hammett’s fame among movie-goers was based mostly on the movie version of The Thin Man that had hit it big two years earlier. To them, Hammett meant Nick and Nora characters who were always clowning around. So that’s what the studio tried to give them, twisting The Maltese Falcon into their version of The Thin Man. To me, that’s the only way this movie makes sense. What do you think?

Warren William as Ted Shane

Shane and the bug-eyed Lady

Marie Wilson as Miss Murgatroyd (Effie)

Arthur Treacher as Travers (Joel Cairo)

Maynard Holmes as Kenneth (Wilmer)

Alison Skipworth (left) as Madame Barabbas (The Fat Lady)

The Horn of Roland as The Maltese Falcon

Sunday, May 21, 2017

The FIRST Maltese Falcon movie (1931)

"Woman of the World" (along with "Dangerous Female") was one of the working titles of this film, and they obviously churned out a few stills with that title before deciding on the original. 

The falcon in the still above, much leaner than the one Bogart handled, appears to have been modeled on the bird on the dust jacket.

Friday, May 19, 2017


I still remember my surprise, when I came across this book back in the '70s, that Hammett had written three Sam Spade short stories. And I still remember the disappointment that they were not absolutely fabulous. Reading them again a couple of years ago, I found them better than I remembered, but still not great.

The tale that impressed me most on that last reading (according to a blog post) was “Too Many Have Lived.” Well, I read it again yesterday, and it did nothing for me. In fact, I found it the weakest of the trio.

This time, my favorite was “They Can Only Hang You Once,” and particularly to the following paragraph, which is vintage Hammett:

"The butler - his name's Jarbo - was in here when he heard the scream and shot, so he says. Irene Kelly, the maid, was down on the ground floor, so she says. The cook, Margaret Finn, was in her room - third floor back - and didn't even hear anything, so she says. She's deaf as a post, so everybody else says. The back door and gate were unlocked, but are supposed to be kept locked, so everybody says. Nobody says they were in or around the kitchen or yard at the time." Spade spread his hands in a gesture of finality. "That's the crop."

“A Man Called Spade,” the longest of the three, was also enjoyable, despite the fact the entire story takes place in an apartment with Spade, Dundy and Polhaus sitting around until Spade solves the case.

It was nice to see Spade again, and Effie Perine, and Homicide dicks Dundy and Polhaus, but there's really nothing in these stories setting them apart from other pulp characters. Other than a few nice turns of phrase and sharp character descriptions, they could have been penned by other hardboiled writers of the time and gone unnoticed. 

And the resolutions of the cases in “They Only Hang You Once” and “A Man Called Spade,” as deduced by Spade, seem a little over the top. I had the feeling Hammett was flaunting his acquired distaste for the genre. Detective stories are silly, he seemed to be saying, so people who insist I write them deserve silly endings.

But what the hell. The prose was still Hammett’s, and he couldn’t spoil that.

The Spade stories originally appeared in American Magazine and Colliers in 1932. They were first collected in Bestseller Mystery No. 50, published by Lawrence E. Spivak in 1944, under the title The Adventures of Sam Spade and Other Stories. Its contents were as follows:

"Too Many Have Lived" from The American Magazine Oct. 1932
"They Can Only Hang You Once" from Collier's Nov. 1932
"A Man Called Spade" from The American Magazine July 1932
"The Assistant Murderer" from Black Mask Feb. 1926
"Nightshade" from Mystery League Magazine Oct. 1, 1933
"The Judge Laughed Last" from Black Mask Feb. 1, 1924 (as "Night Shots")
"His Brother's Keeper" from Collier's Feb. 17, 1934

That edition featured a cool introduction by “Ellery Queen,” which began thusly:

     Meet Sam Spade.
     Meet the rough, tough dick of THE MALTESE FALCON.
     Meet the man with the V-for-Victory face who looks like a blond satan; the man who hated his partner's guts but who tracked down his killer; the man who believes it's bad business to let a killer get away with it, no matter who gets hurt, even if it's the woman you love.
     Meet the private agency detective whom Casper Gutman (The Fat Man) called wild, astonishing, upredictable, amazing - a most headstrong individual who's not afraid of a bit of trouble - an uncommonly difficult person to get the best of - a man of many resources and nice judgment; a man who can mix Bacardi, Manhattans, and knockout-drops, and still land on his feet right side up; who is a son of a gun when it comes to plain speaking and a fair understanding; whose dialogue can telescope to two words, the first a short guttural verb, and the second "you"; who can play both ends against the middle, have his pie and eat it, outwit, outfight, and outbluff, whichever way the cards fall.
     Meet that rough-and-tumble operative who is most dangerous when his smile flickers with a dreamy quality; who hates to be hit without hitting back; who won't play the sap for anyone, man or woman, dead or alive; who can call a $2,000,000 rara avis a dingus and who, when asked in the latest movie version what the heavy lead falcon was made of, answered: "the stuff of dreams."
     Meet the wild man from Frisco who always calls a spade a spade.
     Meet Sam.

Next up, in January 1945, was the Tower Books cheap hardcover edition (pictured far above) with the same stories, minus the EQ intro.

That same year, Dell issued the first mapback edition, titled A Man Called Spade, omitting “Nightshade” and “The Judge Laughed Last.”

Spivak reissued the complete collection under a new title in another digest, Mercury Mystery No. 131 in 1949, this time called They Can Only Hang You Once.

Dell followed with another edition of A Man Called Spade in 1950 (Dell 411), featuring a new cover by Robert Stanley. This was one reissued not long after as Dell 458.

Since 1999, the three Spade tales have resided in the Vintage Crime collection Nightmare Town. They can also be read online, apparently courtesy of some Russians, here:  http://www.e-reading.club/book.php?book=70967

All of which brings us to the reason for this post. It kicks off a week of Spade-related stuff, leading up to next Friday, when the Almanack will begin presenting the 1946 comic book adaptation of The Maltese Falcon, one chapter a day. Stay tuned, Falcon fans.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

A MR. MAC duo from Gary Lovisi: "The Affair of Lady Westcott's Lost Ruby" & "The Case of the Unseen Assassin"

I’ve read a lot of Sherlock Holmes pastiches, and Gary Lovisi has apparently written quite a few, but these are the first I’ve met.

In the two tales in this new Stark House Black Gat book (both appearing for first time, I believe), Lovisi focuses half his energies on the Doyle character Alec MacDonald, a young Scotland Yard Inspector who earned Holmes’ regard in The Valley of Fear, and the other half on Holmes and Watson.

In “The Affair of Lady Wescott’s Lost Ruby,” MacDonald is embroiled in a mystery that grows swiftly more bizarre, until he’s compelled to request the assistance of Mr. Sherlock Holmes. We’re then treated to some nice scenes as Holmes goes undercover as a rat catcher to investigate the case—and avoid a calamity that could shake the foundations of the realm.

Does Holmes solve the mystery and save the day? Doesn’t he always? But how he does it makes for some good Sherlockian fun, with a bit of speculative history as a bonus.

The second tale, “The Case of the Unseen Assassin,” concerns the hunt for a serial killer. While Inspector Lestrade is busy bungling the first two cases, and refusing to consider they may be related, Mr. Mac (as Holmes calls him) draws the third, and enlists the help of Holmes and Watson.

This one springs indirectly from a reference in the Doyle story “The Adventure of the Golden Pince-Nez,” to Huret the Boulevard Assassin, a man executed in Paris two years before the events of the tale in this book. A killer called the Unseen Assassin is now operating in London, and the multiple murder investigations keep our heroes hopping.

These two novellas are good Sherlockian entertainment, and comfortable visits with two old friends as seen from a slightly different perspective. Mr. Mac is a nice addition to the family, and I'd be pleased to see more of him.