Friday, November 17, 2017

Forgotten Books: DEATH TAKES AN OPTION by Neil MacNeil (aka W.T. Ballard)

Based on the number of published novels, W.T. Ballard has to be ranked as one of the most productive of "Cap" Shaw's Black Mask Boys. After his Black Mask days, he went on to write mysteries under his own name and others, and westerns as Todhunter Ballard and others. As of 1979, the year before his death, Steve Mertz tells us he had written 95 novels, more than a thousand shorter works, and fifty film scripts. 

In 1958, with Death Takes an Option, Ballard began a new series starring the private detective team of Tony Costaine and Bert McCall. And for reasons unknown (at least to me), he chose to write under the pen name Neil MacNeil.

The gimmick of two private eyes for the price of one was a good one, and the book covers play them up as partners. But based solely on Death Takes an Option (I've yet to read the others), Costaine is the boss, and does 90% of the detective work. McCall pops in and out, less often than I'd like, doing secondary investigative work, drinking, being irresistible to women and providing comic relief. In short, he's not really a partner - he's a sidekick. Not that there's anything wrong with that. 

While Costaine is your stock hardboiled P.I., being smart, tough, handsome, and flexible in the morality department, McCall is a free-spirited giant who talks like a hipster. He calls Costaine "Dad" (as in "Daddy-o"), and sums up philosophy with the line, "Three things I don't dig. Finks, falsies and fags."

This being 1958, Ballard wasn't worried about offending the LGBTQ community, and an effeminate thug and his partner are referred to as "Rosebud," "blond queen," "daisies" and "girls." There's also plenty for women to object to. Meeting the secretary Costaine is assigned, he immediately addresses her as "Kitten," "honey" and "sweet." There are also naked ladies in this book - and naked men, too - none of whom show the slightest inhibition. 

Costaine and McCall specialize as business detectives, and in this case they're hired to find out why a company accountant has committed suicide. The job leads them from California to Las Vegas, with a side trip into the desert. It's all competently told, and the patter between Costaine and McCall is entertaining. I would have liked a little more of it, and a little more involvement from McCall, but Ballard wrote the book without asking my opinion. 

The Costaine and McCall series continued for four more books, pictured here. In a 1979 interview conducted by Steve Mertz (you can read the whole thing HERE), Ballard said this about the series:

I developed the idea and editor Dick Carrol was enthusiastic. Then he died and Knox Burger took over. Burger was wary of the MacNeil byline because he knew the real Neil MacNeil of Washington. D.C., and my use embarrassed him although it was an honest family name for me. Knox did his best to kill the series. However, the books were popular and went back into reprint over which Knox had no control. It dragged on until Knox felt it was safe and then did kill both the nom and the series. I had no recourse. Knox left the house soon afterward, but the series was gone.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

The Battle of DAVY CROCKETT, Round 1: Bill Hayes vs. Tennessee Ernie Ford

Four versions of this tune (one of my two favorite songs) reached the top ten in 1955. Bill Hayes made it to #1, while Tennessee Ernie peaked at #5. The others were by Fess Parker and Mac Wiseman (we'll be hearing them later).

Sunday, November 12, 2017


Here's another old LP that's been hanging around the house for a coon's age without getting a listen. Until now. It's a you-are-there dramatization of what might have gone down at the Little Old Big Horn, suitably bowdlerized for us kids. Cap'n Bob will dig it. Gobe won't. Will you? I have the "True Action Adventure" treatment of The Alamo, too. Watch this space. 

Friday, November 10, 2017

Forgotten Books: CODE NAME GADGET by Peter Rabe (1967)

This third and final book in the Manny DeWitt series looks more like a spy novel than the first two. This was 1967, spies were big, and I have to think Gold Medal was wishing this was a spy book and wanted would-be buyers to think so. And yeah, there are some spooks in it, sniffing around after the "gadget" of the title, but Our Man Manny is definitely not a spy. He doesn't think like one, doesn't act like one, and doesn't narrate his adventures like one. 

DeWitt thinks, acts and narrates like no one I've encountered before. He's a lawyer who is amused with life, but perpetually annoyed with the people and problems it throws at him. That amusement manifests itself in a lot of wry, clever and nicely crafted narration. As for the people who annoy him most, the chauffeur/smart ass dwarf in The Spy Who Was Three Feet Tall and the pilot/chauffeur/lecher in this novel, they annoyed me too. And his problems? They are in due in large part to his boss (another annoying character), who withholds vital information when sending him on assignments, for no reason other than eccentricity. DeWitt's sidekick in this one reminds me of the perpetually drunk guys who both assist and annoy Rex McBride and other Cleve F. Adams heroes. The difference is that Adams was able to rein them in, so that they annoyed only the hero. 

On the plus side, DeWitt's adventures take him to many interesting locales (in this case Honduras, Ireland, London, New York, Chicago and Tennessee), and Rabe's prose is consistently fine. If you're in the right frame of mind for DeWitt's attitude and humor, and have the patience to let the story unfold, you might find this to be a great read.  

The Stark House Press Manny DeWitt Omnibus is now officially available. I talked about Girl in a Big Brass Bed HERE, and The Spy Who Was 3 Feet Tall HERE

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Hear it Here: The Sounds of the SILLY SURFERS and the WEIRD-OHS (1964)

In 1963, inspired by Revel''s success with a model kit of Ed "Big Daddy" Roth's; Rat Fink, the Hawk Model Company began its line of Weird-Ohs and Silly Surfers. And after Allan Sherman recorded a song about Rat Fink, Hawk answered with a whole album of tunes about their own characters. This is, as it says on the label, "Music to Make Models By." The music on Side A, the album jacket says, is performed by "The Silly Surfers with Shary Richards, and Side B is credited to "The Weird-Ohs with Shary Richards." Surprisingly, some of these songs don't stink. Give them a a listen and see. 

Near as I can tell, Hawk never issued models of "Cowabunga Surf's Up" or "Gremmie Out of Control." Did they ever intend to? Beats me. Here are pics I grabbed off the 'net of the others. As you'll see, the skill and imagination of each individual modeler has a big impact on the result.

Woodie on a Surfari

Beach Bunny Catchin' Rays

Hodad Makin' the Scene with a Six-Pack

Hot-Dogger Hangin' Ten


Drag Hag

Endsville Eddie

Huey's Hut Rod