Friday, April 27, 2012

Forgotten Books: Jimgrim and Allah's Peace by Talbot Mundy

"If T.E. Lawrence had chosen to continue as a British officer in the Near East," says the dust jacket copy, "he would have been involved in this kind of adventure. For here, as only Talbot Mundy can tell it, is the exciting story of post war Palestine, with its race hatreds, its writhing mobs, and its political plots and counterplots."

And yeah, that's a pretty fair description of what this book is about. James Grim is American officer who rode with Lawrence of Arabia in helping the Arabs throw off the yoke of the Ottoman Empire, then stuck around to deal with the mess after the British and French reneged on their promises to establish an Arab state. 

This novel, introducing Mundy's long-running character Jimgrim, is like three books in one. Two of those are adventure stories. They originally appeared in Adventure magazine in 1921 as "The Adventure at El-Kerak" and "Under the Dome of the Rock."  But best of all, the novel offers an insider's view of 1920 Jerusalem and a fascinating look at early days of the Arab-Israeli conflict.

In the first story, Jimgrim faces an Arab uprising that threatens to oust the British from Palestine, while in the second he uncovers an Arab plot to blow up the Dome of the Rock and blame it on Zionists, bringing about a worldwide jihad. 

Mundy's prose, though now over ninety years old, is still remarkably fresh. That guy really knew how to turn a phrase, and his introduction to Jerusalem gave me plenty of smiles:

El Kudz, as Arabs call Jerusalem, is, from a certain distance, as they also call it, shellabi kabir.  Extremely beautiful.  Beautiful upon a mountain.  El Kudz means The City, and in a certain sense it is that, to unnumbered millions of people.  Ludicrous, uproarious, dignified, pious, sinful, naively confidential, secretive, altruistic, realistic.  Hoary-ancient and ultra-modern.  Very, very proud of its name Jerusalem, which means City of Peace.  Full to the brim with the malice of certainly fifty religions, fifty races, and five hundred thousand curious political chicaneries disguised as plans to save our souls from hell and fill some fellow’s purse.  The jails are full.

“Look for a man named Grim,” said my employer.  “James Schuyler Grim, American, aged thirty-four or so.  I’ve heard he knows the ropes.”

The ropes, when I was in Jerusalem before the war, were principally used for hanging people at the Jaffa Gate, after they had been well beaten on the soles of their feet to compel them to tell where their money was hidden.  The Turks entirely understood the arts of suppression and extortion, which they defined as government.  The British, on the other hand, subject their normal human impulse to be greedy, and their educated craving to be gentlemanly white man’s burden-bearers, to a process of compromise.  Perhaps that isn’t government.  But it works.  They even carry compromise to the point of not hanging even their critics if they can possibly avoid doing it.  They had not yet, but they were about to receive a brand-new mandate from a brand-new League of Nations, awkwardly qualified by Mr. Balfour’s post-Armistice promise to the Zionists to give the country to the Jews, and by a war-time promise, in which the French had joined, to create an Arab kingdom for the Arabs.

So there was lots of compromising being done, and hell to pay, with no one paying, except, of course, the guests in the hotels, at New York prices.

Jimgrim and Allah's Peace is available free in a variety of ebook formats at various places on the web.

Your free ticket to more Forgotten Books will be available Friday a.m. at pattinase.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Overlooked Films: Sleepers West (1941)

Reading and writing about Frederick Nebel's first novel Sleepers East last week reminded me of still another movie I've never seen. And this is it - the no doubt tortured and twisted Hollywood adaptation of the story - Sleepers West.

The movie stars Lloyd Nolan, in his second of seven appearances as Michael Shayne, so it's pretty obvious that he - a private detective - is the hero of the piece. The twisted thing about this is that in the book, the private detective, appropriately named Izzard, is the only true villain. While the other eleven main characters are motivated by some small sense of honor, Izzard is ready and willing to become (if he isn't already) a cold blooded killer. Of an innocent woman, no less.

I'd also like to see this film for personal reasons. My grandfather was an engineer for the Northern Pacific, and my father was a brakeman, conductor, trainmaster and assistant superintendent. Me, I took a lot of trips from one end of the line to the other, usually riding in sleeper cars just like the one described in the book. I even worked for the NP (and later the BN) myself, doing vacation relief stints in a variety of menial positions. Guess I still have a little railroading in my blood.

But don't forget. It's really . . . 

More Overlooked Films, as always, at SWEET FREEDOM.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Forgotten Books: Sleepers East by Frederick Nebel

After writing a brief Nebel bio for the brand new Black Dog Books collection, Empire of the Devil (pic below), I was in the mood to take another ride with Fred and his cast of characters on an eastbound train. And hey, it was a great ride!

Nebel wrote this book over a period of eight months, during which he "slowed down" to a mere three novelettes a month for his magazine markets, which at the time were primarily Black Mask, Dime Detective and Collier's. His inspiration came from the 1932 hit film Grand Hotel, based on Vicki Baum's 1929 novel Menschen im Hotel.

The big idea was to throw together a varied cast of characters, each with his or her own backstory and subplot, in a confined setting and force to interact, creating new directions of drama. (Sounds like a reality TV show, doesn't it?) The film starred Greta Garbo (and yes, she actually does say "I want to be left alone."), two Barrymores (John & Lionel), Joan Crawford and Wallace Beery, and won the Academy Award for Best Picture of the year.  

Grand Hotel inspired many other films and novels, but reviewers judged Sleepers East (1933) one of the best. One thing that set Sleepers East apart was that five of the twelve main characters were not simply random, but boarded the train to pursue their own agendas regarding a soon-to-begin murder trial. This murder angle, though, seems to have led some reviewers to consider the book a mystery. My judgment is . . .  it ain't.

Yeah, one of the dozen main characters is a lawyer, and he's defending the accused killer, who's a notorious mobster. There's also a dirty private dick and an inept railroad detective among the dozen. But there's no whodunit here, no crime committed in the course of the book, and very little violence. That's not meant as criticism, because it's a fine story, but most of the conflict revolves around personal aspirations, political problems and romantic entanglements.

With twelve point of view characters, it's hard to point to a protagonist, but the guy who starts and finishes the book, and with whom we probably identify most, is a henpecked husband trying to leave his boring life behind. He fails, but still feels richer for this brief taste of freedom. Other characters go through changes too. One gets her first taste of happiness and ends up dead. One is forced to see the ugly truth about himself. Another is forced to face the ugly truth about someone else. Some folks lose love and (just possibly) find it elsewhere. One is killed by his own obsession. One guy's obsession causes the tragic death of another. 

Yep, there's a lot going on, but it's handled nicely, and all comes together, and reviewers at the time agreed.

The following excerpts appeared on the dust jackets of Nebel's later novels, But Not the End (1934) and Fifty Roads to Town (1936):

"Frederick Nebel is a man to be watched. Sleepers East is conspicuously one of the best train-murder stories we have had, ingeniously constructed and adroitly written. The book is both unusual and brilliant."
Philadelphia Inquirer

"The story has full measure of action, suspense and emotional conflict . . . and thrills a-plenty."
New York Times Book Review

"An author new to the book field has crashed through with a novel for anybody’s entertainment . . . The book has extraordinary suspense."
The Saturday Evening Post

"Unusual, full of action and well handled."
St. Louis Globe-Democrat

"Another thriller on wheels is Sleepers East—with a gangster’s murder at the core of the mystery. The action is lively."
New York Herald Tribune

"Nebel writes astonishingly well. The plot is adroit, ingenious, quick-moving, thrilling."
Town and Country

"There is a thrill on every page . . . Racy and fast-moving. Recommended for those with a flair for the more sensational type of mysteries."
Providence Journal

"Frederick Nebel has provided characters who are ‘people.’ . . . A fine, clean, hard, realistic job of writing. Its temper sings like a sword’s."
Cleveland Press

"A fascinating story . . . splendidly done. The characters are all excellently drawn and humanly interesting."
Boston Transcript

Nebel, of course, was much more than a mystery writer. He began his career writing adventure and aviation stories, dabbled in westerns and eventually focused on selling romances to the slicks. That early adventure work - some of his most entertaining stuff - has been dang tough to find. And that's why I'm especially glad to see this new collection from Tom Roberts' Black Dog Books

Empire of the Devil gathers two short novels, four novelettes and two short stories and packs them with an extensive Nebel bibliography. Plus a fine intro by Mr. Roberts, and a few words about Fred himself - from me. More info, and your best place to order, RIGHT HERE.

Forgotten Books is a presentation of pattinase!

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Overlooked Films: Rin-Tin-Tin in "The Lightning Warrior"

This 1931 serial was the last film the original Rin-Tin-Tin made before he kicked the doggie-bucket. I have a copy on a cheapie DVD set, along with The Lone Defender and two later serials pairing Rin-Tin-Tin Jr. with Rex the Wonder Horse. So far I've seen only Chapter 1, and there's plenty of crazy stuff going on. It's almost bad enough to be good.

The wackiest element is that gent on the left in the Chapter 8 poster below. On the poster he looks sort of like The Shadow, but on film he reminds me more of Mickey Mouse's old nemesis The Phantom Blot. As you might expect from a guy wearing that outfit, he spends a lot of time lurking in hallways and peeking in windows. And when giving orders to his henchmen he holds his cape up Bela Lugosi-style over his already masked face. But he also rides around in broad daylight on a white horse and enjoys standing on mountaintops howling like a wolf. His name? He's called The Wolf Man.

But wait. What about Rin-Tin-Tin? He's the star of this pic, isn't he? Well, maybe. He doesn't have much to do in Chapter 1, but he does have the title role (the local Indians call him "The Lightning Warrior") so maybe he's saving up his heroics for later in the picture.

Here's the set up: Arrows are sailing into town, often landing in the chests of prominent citizens. Each arrow carries a scrap of cowhide with a pictograph warning residents to get out of town or die. Looks like the work of Indians, but the local tribe has supposedly been defunct for 20 years.

One of the first to die is a government agent sent to investigate the situation, who just happens to be the owner of Rin-Tin-Tin. Luckily, the agent's brother shows up to assume the hero's role. Unluckily, another early victim is the father of annoying kid, who's sure to be annoying for the rest of the film. He bawls three times in Chapter 1 alone.

What's really happening? Don't know yet, but we know The Wolf Man is in it up to his floppy hat - and, because of that gent pointing his finger on the poster above (and the guys menacing the Blake Shelton lookalike on the last poster below), we know there really are Indians hiding out in the hills. If I can endure more of the muddy picture and scratchy audio, maybe I'll eventually learn the rest.

Look over more Overlooked Films over at Sweet Freedom.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Forgotten Stories: Race Williams returns in "The Super-Devil" (and it's FREE)

Race Williams, as you may know, is a gunslinger in a fedora, and just maybe the most dangerous man in New York. But in "The Super-Devil," a long novelette from the August, 1926 issue of Black Mask, he meets a man who just might be his match. Not only is The Super-Devil fast, accurate and utterly fearless, but he has the advantage of being scruple-free. He'd happily shoot a man - or woman - in the back  and be even happier if his victim happened to be asleep at the time.

Who wins? Well, the fact that Race was still shooting it out with bad guys as late as 1955 may give you a clue. But the fun part is finding out how he wins, and what he has to say along the way.

In this one, Race is forced to break his number one rule - that Race Williams never bluffs. When his gats are taken from him, Race faces down a bloodthirsty gunman with nothing but pointing fingers in his pockets, and scares the guy so bad he crashes through a nightclub window to escape.

If you requested scans of "Alias Buttercup," the Race Williams adventure I featured three weeks ago, I'll be sending you this one too. But for the rest of you folks, if' you'd like to read "The Super-Devil,"  shoot me an email at, and I'll fire it back at you.

More Race stories coming soon!

Forgotten Books (and sometimes Stories) are rounded up each week at pattinase.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Overlooked Films: Captain Blood (1935)

Erroll Flynn. Basil Rathbone. Flashing swords. Pirate talk. Toy ships fighting in the Warner Brothers tub. Adventure doesn't get more adventurous than this.

I yapped a bit about THE BOOK on Friday, and how I never get enough of it. Same thing here. Don't know how many times I've seen it, but I know I'll be seeing it again.

More Overlooked Films (and probably more blood) at Sweet Freedom.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Forgotten (and Free for Kindle) Books: Captain Blood

There are very few books I've read more than three times, but this is one of them, and it never fails to deliver.

You probably already know Captain Blood a great movie. (If not, come back on Tuesday and I'll tell you.) But it's an even better book, and that's saying something. The novel first appeared in 1921, in nine separate segments in the great pulp mag Adventure, and in book form the following year. And because all this happened prior to 1923, it's in the public domain, and free RIGHT HERE for Kindle.

In case you don't know the setup . . . the story begins with Peter Blood settling down (after a career of soldiering, with plenty of experience in naval battles) to his preferred profession of practicing medicine. Unluckily for him (but lucky for us), his neighbors are in revolt against the king of England, and after a disastrous battle, Blood is called upon to tend their wounds. When he does, the crown brands him a traitor and sentences him, along with a group of true rebels, to a life of slavery in Barbados.

The real fun begins when a Spanish ship attacks the settlement, and Blood rallies his fellow rebels convict to capture the ship. Since they're now outlaws, their best career move is turn pirate, which they do with a vengeance. The saga that follows is packed with action, intrigue and just the right amount of romance (it provides motivation without turning mushy).

Sabatini's prose conveys the flavor of the times, but is still crisp and witty. There are several passages that make me laugh out loud. The only bad news is that at the end of the book, Blood hangs up his pirate hat for good. BUT WAIT! That's not really the end, because Sabatini went on to write 16 short stories, all set within the time frame of the novel, when Blood was at his swashbuckling best.

The stories were collected as Captain Blood Returns (1931) (rechristened The Chronicles of Captain Blood in England) and The Fortunes of Captain Blood (1936). And guess what? I've read both of those books more than three times, too. And I'm nowhere near being finished.

The adventure of Forgotten Books continues at pattinase.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Prince Valiant Vol. 3: Pirates, Vikings and Mythical Beasts

I've been savoring my way through Fantagraphics new series of Prince Valiant reprints, and Volume 3: 1941-1942, is another stunner. Val has gone exploring, and here journeys through the Holy Land, Africa and parts of Europe before heading back to Camelot.

Of special note, he meets Queen Aleta, his future bride, is captured by pirates, goes a'roving with good-natured Viking and battles an ogre (gorilla), a unicorn (rhino) and a dragon (elephant). Feast thine eyes.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Overlooked Films: Rin-Tin-Tin's first serial - The Lone Defender

Yep, you guessed it. I'm still reading Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend by Susan Orlean. 

I've seen some of this 1930 serial, and it's pretty rough going. But it does feature the original Rin-Tin-Tin (at least in close-ups) and it produced some pretty cool posters. 

More Overlooked Films (and maybe some other dogs) at Sweet Freedom.