Saturday, October 27, 2012

Sex, Surprise, and a modern-day Matt Dillon

It’s 1952, and the residents of the small Eastern Oregon town of Barnesville don’t have much to do except jump in bed with their neighbors. The town is a sexual pressure-cooker, driving the behavior of just about everyone - including Sheriff Matt Harkness, who’s having an affair with the judge’s wife.

In fact, Harkness is doing that very thing when he gets the call that two teenagers have gone missing. One is the popular high-school quarterback, son of a rich family. The other is an Okie girl whose family lives in a one-room shack.

As a fictional character, Matt Harkness is full of surprises. His first-person narration packs plenty of humor and personality - sort of like a modern-day Matt Dillon - making him immediately likeable. But just when you think you know what he’s going to do next, he does something else - and danged if it isn’t always just the right thing. And the surprises just keep on coming, revealing new depths to his character right up to the end.

Harkness is a man of his times, shaped for both good and bad by his experiences in WWII. He deals with issues like bigotry and sexual suppression in a believable manner. We come to know him as a good man, but never a self-righteous one. The pursuit of justice is his job, and he’s good at it, but he never loses sight of where his next woman, or his next drink, is coming from.

As a modern-day Western sheriff, Harkness has a horse of sorts - a ‘39 Chevy pickup he calls Hoopie, and a sidekick - a neurotic wiener dog named Addison. He’s forced to deal with some horrific murders, one of which strikes very close to home, before finally confronting the killer man-to-man on the High Desert.

This is author Michael Bigham’s first novel, and he’s done a heck of a job. The plot twists are always unexpected, but they always satisfy. By the time you reach the end, I predict you’ll be a fan of both Bigham and Harkness, and looking forward to the next book in the series.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Forgotten Books: Fortress of Solitude by Lester Dent - the Prequel to Will Murray's new DOC SAVAGE novel

When I heard that Will Murray's new Doc book, Death's Dark Domain, is a sequel to the Doc classic, Fortress of Solitude, I had to dig out my old Bantam paperback for another go-round.

I didn't read it, though, because I discovered I had a more complete version of the story in the first volume of the Nostalgia Ventures two-fer series. The Nostalgia Ventures edition features all the original art from the October 1938 issue of the pulp, so I read that instead.

According to Will Murray's introduction, Street & Smith gave the pulp story extra promotion. Readers had been teased with hints about Doc's arctic hideaway for five years, and their first peek inside was treated as a special event. Lester Dent apparently agreed, and gave the story a special villain, an evil genius and master hypnotist who calls himself John Sunlight.

As a story, Fortress of Solitude is pretty standard stuff (weird menace, gang of thugs, Doc and/or his aides getting captured), and we get only two paragraphs describing the interior of Doc's dome. But John Sunlight is undeniably special - if only for the fact that he escapes Doc's clutches, taking with him a score of deadly devices, and returns two months later to battle Doc again in The Devil Genghis.  Death's Dark Domain takes place in between those two adventures, as Doc and the gang face the consequences of Sunlight's theft.

Doc's Fortress as seen in the pulp. 
That distant figure whacking it with an ax is John Sunlight.

I'm reading Death's Dark Domain now, and will have a report on it soon!

Links to more Forgotten Books at pattinase.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Forgotten Books: Flash Casey 519, Sam Spade 230 -or- "Silent Are the Dead" by George Harmon Coxe

Flash (short for Flashgun) Casey, tough-guy photographer for the Boston Express, was born in Black Mask in 1934, and went on to make more appearances in other media than any other graduate of the magazine, including the runner-up, Sam Spade.

Here's the scorecard.
Pulp magazine stories: Casey 21, plus two serialized novels. Spade appeared in one serialized novel.
Slick magazine stories: Casey 0. Spade 3.
Paperback collections: Casey 1. Spade 1.
Hardcover novels:  Casey 5 (plus one written under a pseudonym by Edward S. Aarons). Spade 1.
Movies: Casey 2. Spade 2.
Radio shows: Casey 444. Spade 221.
Television episodes: Casey 40. Spade 0.
Comic books: Casey 4. Spade 1.

In terms of volume, Casey smoked him. But these days, while Spade is an Icon and Hammett almost a god, Casey is a Forgotten Character, and George Harmon Coxe is rarely read. Tsk, tsk.

Still, posterity got it right. That one Spade novel is better than all the Casey stories and novels put together, both Spade films are by all accounts far superior to the Casey flicks, the Spade radio show was a lot more fun than Casey's, and even the single comic book (an adaptation of The Maltese Falcon) was better than the Casey series. The only place I'd give Flash the edge is in the story category, because the Spade tales from the slicks are pretty lame.

Silent Are the Dead (1942), the first Casey novel, was serialized in Black Mask between September and November 1941. Sad to say, Casey is not quite as tough as he was during his years with Joe Shaw (1934-1936). This, I suspect, was because Coxe had put Casey on the back burner, devoting most of his time to a kinder, gentler Boston news photographer named Kent Murdock. By the time Silent Are the Dead appeared in hardcover, Coxe already had nine Murdock novels under his belt.

Silent Are the Dead is still a pretty good read, but if you're new to Flash Casey, I'd suggest you read a couple of the pulp stories first. You'll find "Murder Mixup" in Shaw's Hard-Boiled Omnibus. "Murder Picture" was reprinted in The Black Lizard Big Book of Pulps, and "Fall Guy" in The Black Lizard Big Book of Black Mask Stories. And the vintage paperback collection Flash Casey - Detective (reviewed HERE) is not impossible to come by.

More Forgotten Books at pattinase.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Overlooked Films: Johnny Yuma Meets Frankenstein

In 1965, Academy Award Nominee and former Rebel star Nick Adams joined the ranks of such honored thespians as Raymond Burr, and accepted a role in a cheesy Japanese monster movie. Ouch.

I've never seen this one, and not sure I could stand it. The posters and pics are almost too much to bear. On the other hand, Adams reportedly had a fling with his co-star Kimo Mizuno (with whom he also made the Godzilla flick Invasion of Astro-Monster, better known as Monster Zero, which I have seen), so chances are he had a better time making these turkeys than anyone did watching them.

Kumi Mizuno in her Monster Zero outfit.

Links to more Overlooked Films at SWEET FREEDOM.