Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Noteworthy Reads: THE BARTERED BODY by J.R. Lindermuth




This latest by J.R. Lindermuth is rich in atmosphere, filled with colorful characters (some quite engaging, others on the decidedly nasty side), and presents as nifty a set of mystery elements as any I've read in a good long while.
 
It is the third entry in Lindermuth's Sylvester Tilghman series—Sylvester being the sheriff of the small town of Arahpot in Jordan County, Pennsylvania, at the the turn of the twentieth century. Lindermuth paints the era and setting effectively, without slowing the pace of the story with too many period-piece details. Sylvester himself is a likable character, dogged at his job in spite of the various obstacles and distractions placed before him. Among the distractions in this particular case is an old girl friend who shows up and seems bent on re-kindling past feelings, regardless of her being married and Sylvester being thoroughly devoted to his somewhat elusive love, Lydia.
 
At the center of everything is the body of a prominent, recently deceased townswoman, stolen from the local funeral parlor just ahead of scheduled services. Add to that a crippling blizzard, a sudden string of strongarm robberies, a murder that may or may not be connected to the escalating tension of a looming strike at the local mine, and Sylvester's patience and crime-solving skills will be sorely tested before he manages to unravel everything.
 
This is all adeptly handled by Lindermuth's clean, uncluttered writing style, a sharp eye for characterization, his smooth way with plot twists. As a result, readers will be kept entertained and guessing right up to the end.
Highly Recommended.

Saturday, March 10, 2018

HAPPY BIRTHDAY, MR. SPILLANE

Yesterday marked what would have been the 100th birthday of Mickey Spillane. Spillane was one of – if not THE -- most influential mystery writers of the twentieth century, certainly the last half. And surely the top seller. At one point seven of the top ten best selling mysteries carried the Spilane byline. When one of his many critics lamented that fact, Spillane famously quipped: “They're lucky I didn't write three more.”

 
I had the distinct honor and privilege of meeting and spending a couple of days around Mr. Spillane back in the summer of 1996, on the set of Max Allan Collins' film, Mommy 2: Mommy's Day. In the accompanying picture, left to right, you see Mr. Spillane, Lynn F. Myers (a mutual friend), myself, and Max. Spillane had a starring role as Mommy's lawyer, I had a non-speaking bit part as a prison guard who wheels Mommy to the lethal injection chamber. (SPOILER ALERT: Mommy turns the tables so that doesn't quite work out.)
When Collins first invited me to come be a part of the filming, I naturally agreed. Then wisecracked: “Do I get to be a prison guard for the women's shower scene?” To which Max sternly replied there was no women's shower scene. Still trying to be a smart ass, I asked why do a women's prison movie without a shower scene? But Max remained unamused. He took his planned movie very seriously and rightfully so – it turned out to be an entertaining, much-acclaimed film. It's available on DVD, if you're interested – and I'm not encouraging that because of my meager part, but rather because it's a nifty little thriller that I think you will enjoy. In addition to Spillane, it stars Patty McCormick, Gary Sandy (from WKRP In Cincinatti), and Paul Peterson (from The Donna Reed Show).
 
But the main gist of this post is to recognize, on what would have been his 100th birthday, the power and importance of Mickey Spillane and his work.
Thanks to the strength of his writing and to the continuing efforts of Max Allan Collins (at the urging of Mickey before he died) to complete many of Spillane's partial manuscripts, his work continues to be enjoyed by millions yet today.
As for me, I'll always not only have the satisfaction of enjoying said work, I also will have the memory of meeting Mr. Spillane in person and finding him to be every bit as cordial and engaging as you would hope for one of your heroes (and influences) to be.
Happy birthday, Mickey!

Saturday, March 3, 2018

Noteworthy Reads: IN SILENCE SEALED by J.R. Lindermuth


John Lindermuth's latest entry in his Sticks Hetrick mystery series is now available in both print and eBook formats, and it is a fine addition to the series.

If you're not already familiar with Sticks and the other folks from Swatara Creek -- and their encounters both in the line of duty and their personal lives -- then you need to be. Otherwise you're missing some sure-fire reading entertainment.

"Here's what I wrote in my Amazon review for this book:
IN SILENCE SEALED is a deeply satisfying murder mystery, rich with characterization and atmosphere, wonderfully complex in its plot twists. Bullet-fast scene shifts set a lively pace that utilizes a large cast of characters, anchored by the always-reliable Sticks Hetrick, and orchestrated by the sure hand of author Lindermuth. Don't miss this latest entry in the Hetrick series!"

Not a lot more I can add, other than -- what are you waiting for? Get your copy ordered and get set for a great read. You won't be sorry.

Monday, February 12, 2018

R.I.P. BILL CRIDER

I heard the sad news a little while ago about the passing of Bill Crider. We've all known it was coming, of course, but that doesn't make it much easier. It never does in such cases; and certainly not in this one. 
I didn't know Bill extremely well. We met a couple of times at Bouchercons a number of years back and corresponded on and off afterwards. He was gracious enough to supply some blurbs and reviews for a few of my books. I also reviewed some of his -- which was no stretch since he was so talented and wrote such entertaining work. 
The closest we probably got was in the months following the passing of his beloved wife Judy. As someone who had also endured that kind of loss, I offered my condolences and we traded a number of e-mails, sharing the feelings one goes through. I'd like to think I helped him at least a little bit to endure the emptiness he was left with.
Some time last year, on the occasion of Judy's birthday (I can't determine the exact date) Bill posted on his blog what I will be sharing a little bit further on. It really struck a chord in me at the time. He stated it so beautifully. It broke my heart and I knew I would always remember it. When I heard today's news, I immediately thought of it. I think it is a fitting way to remember Bill (and his love for Judy). Here is what he wrote: 

"Judy would have been 74 today. I still think about her constantly, and one of the things I remember best is our dates at the Fort Parker State Park lake. There was a clubhouse with an outside dance floor, which you can see in the picture on the right, and we spent many nights there all year 'round. I wasn't much of a dancer, but I could dance with her to the slow numbers. We both agreed that the song that reminded us the most of those days was 'Twilight Time' by the Platters. I hope that someday Judy and I will meet again on that dance floor where we do another slow dance and I'll fall in love again, as I did then, when we're together at last at twilight time." 

I hope you will share with me in finding solace in the the thought that Bill now has his wish of be with Judy again, dancing, doing whatever -- once more by each other's side for eternity. 

 

Monday, February 5, 2018

Another Look: FIVE GUNS WEST (1955 Western, directed by Roger Corman)

This is one of those cheaply made, poorly acted B-movie entries that somehow, in spite of its shortcomings, has enough quirky, interesting touches to still make it rather appealing. And then, if/when you check into its back story (as I, being something of a film buff, tend to do) you find a number of additionally interesting facts that also add to it.

The story premise is pretty simple, if somewhat unbelievable. It takes place late in the Civil War. Five captured Union soldiers, scoundrels and murderers all, are pardoned in agreement to take on a mission for the Confederacy: Ride through Indian country to intercept a secret enemy gold shipment and the traitor who is allegedly diverting it into Union hands. The five agree to take on the job and are promptly sent to a remote stagecoach swing station where the gold shipment is expected to be passing through. Inasmuch as no Confederate soldiers can be spared to accompany them, they are (illogically) expected to honor their deal and return with both the gold and the traitor. Almost before they're out of sight, of course, they begin making plans on how they'll split the gold and ride off on their own pursuits.
The five men are: Govern Sturges (played by John Lund, a leading man of some renown from the 1940s [opposite the likes of stars such as Marlene Dietrich, Jean Arthur, Grace Kelly] but here looking sort of old and weary); Hale Clinton (played by Mike Conners of Mannix fame, billed here early in his career as “Touch” Conners); J.C. Haggard (played by popular character actor Paul Birch); and the Candy brothers, Billy and John (played, respectively, by Jonathan Haze and R. Wright Campbell [more on him a bit later]).
The men quickly begin squabbling amongst themselves as they ride through rugged country. But the threat of Indians keeps them dependent on each other. Haggard has some familiarity with the land and also with Indians. So does Sturges, who gradually comes to the fore as unofficial leader of the group. Clinton is an oily deal-maker, seeking to make a secret alliance with one of the others so that, when the time comes, he can wangle out a bigger share of the gold. The Candy brothers are an odd fit to everything, with Billy showing signs of being deranged and dangerous and his older brother John barely able to contain him.
After some Indian skirmishes, they reach the swing station where they take captive the two people who run it—a pretty young woman, Shalee Jethro (Dorothy Malone) and her drunken Uncle Mike (James Stone). While they're waiting for the stage to show up, the men quickly begin angling for a chance at Shalee. She does a pretty good job of fending them off on her own, but Sturges also steps forward as her protector. Romantic feelings develop between them and its revealed that Sturges is really a Confederate officer working undercover to make the five-man mission a success.
When the stagecoach arrives, the small contingent of Union soldiers guarding it are ambushed and killed and the traitor from inside the coach is captured. When no gold is found, however, he is forced to admit that it is on its way to California and was never on the stagecoach.
Everything breaks down at that point and a shootout erupts with the “five guns” taking sides against one another. Sturges takes refuge inside the house with Shalee and her uncle and also the captive traitor and, one by one, he prevails over the others. At the conclusion, the bodies are buried and Sturges rides off with his prisoner to rejoin the war effort, but promises Shalee he will be returning to her.

Throughout this film there are some interesting dialogue exchanges, terse and almost noirish at times. The psychotic side of Billy Candy is always simmering just below the surface and adds a tense undercurrent to any scene he is in. And Lund, whom (as stated earlier) I found rather dull and tired-looking at first, actually builds to display a low key, steadfast strength that ends up carrying much of the movie's credibility. Malone—sandwiching this between a meaty role in the highly popular BATTLE CRY only a year earlier and then an Academy Award-winning performance (best supporting actress) a year later for WRITTEN ON THE WIND, brings a solid, feisty touch to her role, but is given only a limited amount to do.

This was Roger Corman's directorial debut and was an early release for American Releasing Corporation which would soon turn into American-International and for whom Corman would go on to direct and produce many, many films, mostly low budget entries in horror/thriller/exploitation genres. Much has been written about Corman's schlock output over the years, and a certain amount of it is deserved. Nevertheless the man was responsible for a ton of output and a good share of it was fairly decent entertainment. Moreover, he was responsible for recognizing and launching the careers of many people in various capacities (acting, writing, directing, cinematography) who would go on to huge, award-winning success.
The cinematographer on FIVE GUNS WEST, for example, was Floyd Crosby, who Corman used often, and also did Award-winning work in such films as TABU, HIGH NOON, and THE WONDERFUL COUNTRY.
The screenplay for FIVE GUNS was by R. Wright Campbell (who also starred as John Candy). Campbell would go on to write for numerous television shows and would receive an Academy Award nomination for the James Cagney film MAN OF A THOUSAND FACES. He would eventually give up acting and writing for the screen and turn to novels. As Robert Campbell he wrote the La-La Land mystery series featuring PI Whistler and the Jake Hatch railroad detective books. For The Junkyard Dog he won an Edgar and an Anthony award.

Back stories and so forth aside, FIVE GUNS WEST is a reasonably entertaining way to spend 78 minutes. Nothing extraordinary or ground-breaking. Just a simple little Western tale with some quirky, interesting touches ... Sometimes that's all you can ask for.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Noteworthy Reads: ANSWER DEATH (a Dan Spalding mystery) by Richard Prosch

I've written here many times about the work of Spur Award-winning author Richard Prosch. Most of that has been to herald his work in the Western genre—particularly his stories and novellas featuring Holt County Deputy Sheriff Whit Bannon as well as his terrific series featuring John Coburn, the Perigrene. Throughout, however, Richard has written several stories in other genres ranging from horror to contemporary crime to the wonderful YA turn-of-the-century adventures featuring Jo Harper.
 
Most recently Richard has focused his talents on the crime/mystery field with a short story and a novella featuring Dan Spalding, a former state cop who has taken over running his late brother's used record store in Ozark City. But Spalding's instincts remain sharp from his years on the force and he seems to have a knack for getting involved in sometimes-dangerous situations where those instincts continue to come in handy.
 
I had the pleasure of reading the first Dan Spalding novel, ANSWER DEATH (and also “Spalding's Groove”, the Spalding short story that preceded it) and at that time provided the following blurb:

"ANSWER DEATH is about as slick and clever a murder mystery as you're likely to find. With an original setting, an engaging protagonist, and the lean, distinct prose of author Prosch fueling it, it is a winner that I hope is the start of a series we will be seeing plenty more of. Don't wait—check it out now!"

Really not much more I can add to that. You can get a further plot synopsis on Amazon—which I urge you to do, along with then going ahead and purchasing the book (as well as the short story). Both are available on Kindle and the novel also in a print edition.
You can't go wrong with anything written by Prosch, and if your tastes run to quasi-hardboiled mysteries with a laid back protagonist channeling shades of Travis McGee, then you're definitely going to want to make the acquaintance of Dan Spalding, too.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Another Look: GOLD OF THE SEVEN SAINTS (1961 Western starring Clint Walker)

This 1961 Western from Warner Brothers has all the elements for a top notch Western adventure—strong cast, veteran writers, good production values, and some beautiful outdoor scenery shot in and around Arches National Park in Utah. Unfortunately, it suffers from some slow pacing and a couple prolonged shootouts that amount to little more than two groups of guys blazing away at one another from behind rocks. It's hard to make a shootout un-exciting, but this film almost manages it.
The two main characters, Jim Rainbolt and Sean Garrett, are played respectively by Clint Walker and a painfully young-looking Roger Moore (long before James Bond, in his Warner Brothers contract days when he played the English cousin Beau on Maverick and co-starred in the short-lived Alaskans series). The banter and chemistry between these two make for some of the best moments in the film. Rainbolt and Garrett are a pair of trappers who inadvertently have made a gold strike. They are on their way to cash in their new wealth at a place called Seven Saints when Rainbolt's horse pulls up lame. (Seven Saints as advertised in the title, by the way, is a bit misleading—it's not the gold of seven saints, which makes it sound rather Raiders of the Lost Ark-ish, but rather a destination [one they never even quite reach].) Anyway, in going into a nearby small town to get his partner a re-mount, Garrett foolishly flashes some of the gold to buy a horse. This is noticed by big, burly Gene Evans playing a nasty character named McCracken who promptly gathers up a gang of bad guys to follow Garrett with intentions of finding out how much more gold there is and relieving him of it. This sets up a long series of the bad guys following Rainbolt and Garrett through vast stretches of beautifully rugged country. The pair can't quite escape, the bad guys can't quite manage to catch up and pin them down.
Chill Wills shows up as a crusty, drunken old doctor (was there any other kind in the Old West?) who helps the good guys out of a tight spot and then treats Garrett's wound. When asked how a doctor knows how to shoot so good, he explains “I learned how to shoot long before I learned about doctoring”. Eventually, the now-trio reaches the hacienda of Gondora (played with scenery-chewing delight by Robert Middleton), an old pal of Rainbolt's and now part-time bandit living high off his ill-gotten gains. He agrees to help protect his old friend for a portion of the gold (which by this point Rainbolt and Garrett have hidden out in the desert as a potential bargaining chip should they be captured by the baddies).
An interlude at the Gondora hacienda involves some scenes with saucy, sexy Leticia Roman playing Tita, a “ward” of Gondora who is willingly for sale to any man with the right price. This is all treated as light-hearted fun that would drive many people nuts in these PC-conscious times. There is also a scene where Doc Chill Wills helps the wife of one of Gondora's men having difficulty giving birth to her baby. The doc requests a quill and a box of snuff to aid him and then, off camera, we here the mother give a loud sneeze followed shortly by the wailing of a newborn. Doc calls it a “quill baby” .. I got the snuff part figured out, but how the quill figured in I will leave to your imagination.

 
In the end, through diversion, McCracken kidnaps the wounded Garrett and uses him to force Rainbolt to tell where the gold is hidden. Rainbolt tricks the gang leader at the last minute, and pins him under a boulder which had previously been covering the gold. There is a powerful scene here where Rainbolt shows every intent of leaving the injured, pinned McCracken to die in spite of his pleas for mercy. He flings a handful of gold dust at him and snarls, “Here—die rich!” A few more gritty scenes like this could have lifted this movie a lot.
Gondora and his riders show up at the last minute to kill McCracken and, not surprisingly, demand all of the gold for their trouble. Another chase ensues, this time with Rainbolt and Garrett fleeing a new bunch of bad guys. Spoiler Alert: The big climax involves our boys trying to escape by crossing a swollen, rushing river. They make good their escape but, in the process, the gold dust is washed away—back into the river where it came from—and nobody gets rich off it. From opposite sides of the river, Rainbolt and Gondora declare they will be friends once more should they ever meet again in the future. Then, left on their own, Rainbolt and Garrett decide they will go back to trapping ... it's a lot less dangerous and troublesome than gold.
This movie is based on DESERT GUNS, a novel by Steve Frazee that I never read so I don't know how it compares. Leigh Brackett, notable for much stronger stuff, co-wrote the screenplay. Direction was by veteran Gordon Douglas who did everything from Little Rascal comedies to a blaxploitation movie near the end of his career, with outings featuring the likes of Jimmy Cagney, Sinatra, and Elvis in between. He also prviously helmed FORT DOBBS and YELLOWSTONE KELLY (a far superior Western) with Walker.
In the final analysis, I found this a watchable, mildly entertaining movie. Largely because I like Clint Walker a lot and, as noted before, the banter between him and Moore is enjloyable. But, somehow, I found myself thinking throughout that it just could have been a lot better.