Tuesday, March 21, 2023

Poirot and Me by David Suchet

Over the past couple of years, I’ve been enjoying all of the excellent “Agatha Christie’s Poirot” television series starring David Suchet in the title role. I’ve been impressed with the overall quality of the show, most especially with the way in which he so accurately captured the ‘real” Inspector Hercule Poirot, just as Christie wrote him (as opposed to the way he is usually portrayed in a somewhat cartoonish way). I’ve also been impressed that a single actor would continue to portray the same character time after time for 25 years and 70 films, most of them two-hour feature-film quality events, covering every Poirot story (novel and short story) ever penned by Dame Agatha. So when I saw this book on the store shelves I made the very unusual decision, for me, to engage in an impulse buy.

So glad I did! I rarely read autobiographies of actors but for me, just as with so many millions of people around the world, David Suchet is Poirot. He covers a lot of ground that you might expect in this book, including the very interesting manner in which he created his version of Poirot, how he captured his look, his walk, his voice, his mustache, etc. He takes us through the seasons and the angst which he and his wife experienced through 25 years of filming the shows, never knowing at the end of each series whether or not the next would happen. Because of these gaps in filming, we get to see what projects he worked on, mostly in the theater in London, while he waited for news. One theme which I did not expect to encounter runs throughout the book: what it means to be a character actor versus a “star”. I now have a much greater appreciation for that aspect of an actor’s craft.

But the major theme of the book is the unreserved and deeply held love that David Suchet feels for the character. Just where the character stops and the actor begins is something he jokes about but his need to preserve the character and make Dame Agatha proud is the mark of true professional. For me, as a voracious reader of fiction, I doubly appreciate how he tries to stay true to the character and fight against tendencies to “update him for today’s audiences”.

This is a pleasant read, eye-opening in some respects, but fundamentally rewarding. Recommended for all fans of the television series or for those interested in the profession of acting.

Tuesday, March 14, 2023

Sherlock Holmes: The Crossovers Casebook - Edited by Howard Hopkins

This is a fun collection of Sherlock Holmes stories. They are all crossover cases, meaning prominent figures of fiction and history “crossover” into a Sherlock story and work with Holmes and Watson to solve a case. Guest stars include Professor Challenger, Sexton Blake, Harry Houdini, Dr. Moreau, Arsene Lupin, Lawrence of Arabia, Colonel Savage and more. Contributing authors include giants of the crossover genre like Win Scott Eckert, Will Murray, and Joe Gentile. 

Most of the stories are written along the traditional Sherlockian lines but the final one, “The Adventure of the Lost Specialist” penned by Christopher Sequeira strays into the realm of the weird and strange. Nothing wrong with that and I did like it, but it seems a bit out of place among the rest. My favorite story in the collection is the humorous yarn entitled, “The Haunted Manor” written by Howard Hopkins and featuring Calamity Jane.

I read these over time, not back to back which is the best way for me to avoid burnout on one particular genre. As with all anthologies some stories are more enjoyable than others, but I genuinely liked every tale presented.  Some authors were new to me and so, of course, I now have more stories to seek out.

Thursday, March 9, 2023

Home is the Prisoner by Jean Potts

Jim Singley has just been released from prison after serving a sentence for manslaughter. In deciding to return to the small middle-America community where everybody knows he killed his business partner, he knows it won’t be easy. As for the community at large and especially for those close to Jim and what happened, they can only wonder one thing. Why would Jim come back here? It must be for some sort of unfinished business.

That’s the mystery at the heart of this novel by Jean Potts, an accomplished writer of numerous short stories in addition to some fourteen novels published in the 1950’s-60’s. She is known for her characterizations, especially in small towns and that is clearly evident here. The plot unfolds through the eyes of a handful of people in Jim’s orbit, shifting the perspective and letting readers in on their own secrets and theories. From early on in the novel, one gets the impression that Jim was likely falsely imprisoned but at the same time it remains quite possible he is an evil man intent on revenge. The solution is not evident until the very end.

By today’s standards this is not a swiftly moving narrative. There is a lot of thoughtful perspective from quite a few characters, much of it inwardly focused. The novel is well-written and I can see why the author won the Edgar award for best first novel for Go, Lovely Rose.

Thursday, March 2, 2023

The Tin Lizzie Troop by Glendon Swarthout

During the Mexican-American border campaign of 1916 during which 100,000 national guardsmen were called up to defend the US against raiding Mexican bandits, an incident took place that resulted in the first ever mechanized infantry engagement. This novel, by American writer Glendon Swarthout, takes a humorous (and fictionalized) view of that event, resulting in a fun read indeed.

General Blackjack Pershing’s fruitless chase of Pancho Villa took all the headlines at the time but here we follow Lt. Stanley Dinkle, commander of Patrol Post No. 2 based out of Ft. Bliss. A rotation of National Guardsman perform a tour of duty for a month at a time under his command and this time it is six members of the Philadelphia Light Horse. Officially they are national guard but in reality they are the sons of wealthy hoity-toity military men’s club members. Naturally, they expect their tour of duty to be nothing but fun and games. Among their gear are polo mallets, a Victrola phonograph, and two Ford Model T automobiles.

When Lt Dinkle is granted leave in El Paso for a weekend, he leaves one of the six men in charge and of course everything goes to Hell. They are raided by Mexican bandits, their horses stolen, and a local homely maiden is kidnapped. The very honor of the Philadelphia Light Horse is at stake! Against all orders, they cross the Rio Grande and charge toward the bandits. However, they soon learn that Model T’s racing across the desert tend to encounter all sorts of mechanical problems that horses do not.

This is the funniest novel I have read in a long time. Nearly every line, whether dialog or not is humorous in one way or another. It combines farcical situations with some surprising pathos. And it also contains some shockingly violent scenes. It’s like reading a Monty Python skit as directed by Quentin Tarantino. A movie version was almost made staring Paul Newman. Too bad it wasn’t. I would have paid to see that.

Saturday, February 25, 2023

The Way of Kings (The Stormlight Archive #1) by Brandon Sanderson

This, ladies and gentlemen, is why I read.

I am going to do my best to explain why this one made it into my favorites list which is not easy to do given the total number of books I've read.  First, I will say that I am a relative newcomer to Sanderson's work.  I read the Mistborn Trilogy Boxed Set last year and Elantris earlier this year. I knew after just reading that first Mistborn book that Sanderson would be one of my must-read authors and by the end of that trilogy I had vowed to read everything he writes, even if it means traversing the entire Wheel of Time series by Robert Jordan just to get to those final volumes by Sanderson.

I had not actually intended on reading The Way of Kings next, mostly because of the sheer size of it. Size, in and of itself, doesn't bother me and I've read numerous "doorstoppers" before. But they can sometimes seem too drawn out and slow moving and I was simply worried that the same might happen to my beloved Sanderson.

But no, it was not to be. Sanderson has written the near perfect novel here. His world building, as incredible as always, is beyond my ability to describe adequately. While complicated, the cultural, religious, and political systems upon which the plot is developed makes sense and yet still does not divert the reader from where his/her attention should be focused: upon the plot and the characters. Same goes for the magic system that we get to explore with the characters, discovering its nuances at the same time as the characters.

And speaking of characters, many other lengthy books or series in the fantasy genre that I've read suffer from too many characters, too many points-of-view. And there are a lot of characters here as well, but Sanderson chooses to focus on a select few so that we readers don't get bogged down, flipping back pages to try and remember who so-and-so is. And each of his focus characters is intriguing in their own ways. They have complex backgrounds and motivations and none of them are all good or all bad. They are real. And each time a new chapter opened and returned me to that particular character, I would instantly sink into their part of the story.

And the plot. I won't rehash that here; I could never do it justice. Suffice it to say that all the elements of good story-telling are here: intrigue, peril, action, romance, noble honor, dastardly betrayal...I could go on and on. But to put it all together and make it soooo enjoyable requires the genius of Brandon Sanderson. Usually when I read a long work such as this, I churn through the final hundred pages or so to get that feeling of finally conquering that mountain of pages. But with this one I found myself stalling, not wanting it to end, despite its page length. As I write this I actually am feeling a little in withdrawal about the whole thing. And this is the beginning of what is reportedly a 10-book series? 

I know this sounds like total fanboy gushing but reading this novel really did effect me more than 99% of the novels I read. And I'm the type of reader who likes most of what he reads. So if you haven't discovered Sanderson yet, I suggest you still start out with the Mistborn series (at least the first trilogy)  and work your way through from there. 

Highest possible recommendation!

Saturday, February 18, 2023

War in Sandoval County by Wayne D. Overholser

I’ve been wanting to read a Wayne D. Overholser western ever since I saw him referenced in Stephen King's novel Wolves of the Calla, part of King's "Dark Tower" saga.  Overholser was among the earlier group of American western writers and, in fact, won the very first Spur Award in 1953 for his novel, Law Man. Like many others of his time, Wayne cut his teeth in the pulps, his first story published in 1936.

In this book, Jeff Ardell is a man caught in the middle of a range war. He begins the book as part of the “Big 4” ranchers in the high prairie region near Starbuck, Colorado.  An ugly cattle-rustling problem causes the leader of the Big 4, Ben Shortt, to call in a “livestock detective” to find proof of the re-branding activity. However, the man he secretly calls in, Sam Marks, is a notorious killer, known for his cowardly way of shooting unsuspecting men in the back. Jeff sees Shortt’s power-grab for what it is and decides to pull out of the Big 4. But trying to determine who his friends are and who might be selling him out to the killer is only part of his problem now.

This book has plenty of gun-slinging action and back-stabbing twists as Jeff stubbornly takes on the existing power structure. It’s not just about how Jeff can outmaneuver his foes but how can he lead his side against so many people arrayed against him. Even the good guys tend toward the gray side of the scale, so Jeff has some moral dilemmas to wade through.

An enjoyable read with a satisfying ending that makes me want to hunt down some more of Overholser’s work.

Monday, February 13, 2023

Spillane: King of Pulp Fiction by Max Allan Collins & James L. Traylor

Mickey Spillane was a complicated man. Known by many as the creator of the iconic and influential character Mike Hammer, he is known by others primarily for a lengthy series of Miller Lite beer commercials. He earned a reputation as an edgy, hard-living, man’s man and yet was known to friends and family as kind, considerate, and willing to give a stranger the shirt off his back. His sense of humor was as evident as his legendary hard-punching, revenge-oriented, justice-delivering hero Mike Hammer.

I grew up after Spillane’s zenith and really only knew him via his reputation. In fact, I came to this biography not because of any great desire to learn about him and his work, (although I felt that would be interesting) but rather because I am a big fan of co-author Max Allan Collins (MAC) and his large body of work. I knew MAC had completed many of Spillane’s novels and stories after Spillane’s passing, a huge undertaking based on Spillane’s partially completed manuscripts, outlines, notes, interviews, and verbal knowledge passing.

Reading this biography was a real eye-opening experience. I confess to having only sampled the first three Hammer novels and one non-Hammer title so far but after completing this volume, I now have a desire to greatly expand my consumption of his writing. This biography is far more than a regurgitation of Spillane’s factual data, his writing, and the events of his life. MAC, along with co-author James L. Traylor have done a tremendous job of showing us the man himself. We come to understand how a fast-rising star of cutting edge, censor-baiting crime novels became an overnight pariah, despised by many of his peers. A ten-year absence from writing Mike Hammer novels, at the very pinnacle of their commercial success, may not have been due to his joining the Jehovah’s Witnesses as many people conclude. We get to ride along as Mickey combines an adrenaline-charged interest in adventurous hobbies like under water diving, racing cars, and collecting guns but the real joy here are the numerous insights into his writing processes, his complicated involvement in numerous movies and TV series, his self-parody, and his sheer joie de vivre.

Looking back on his incredibly popular fiction, Spillane referred to it as “the chewing gum of modern literature.” Maybe so, but along the way he was perfectly comfortable with and even seemed to relish in laughing all the way to the bank. And as the authors point out in this book, the evidence for him caring deeply about his writing, the “poetry” of his descriptive passages, and the masterful plotting is evident with each story he produced.

Included as appendices in this volume are a number of interesting additional items, not the least of which is a nice fragment of his own autobiography, a task that he had always planned to get to someday. It covers his childhood up until age 14 and provides some cool insights into his outlook on life. Also included is a timeline of key events in Spillane’s life which incorporates the dates of all his major publications and other media output. Several lists detail his novels, short stories, collections, etc. as well as a compilation of the Mike Danger comic book series titles. Pulp expert Will Murray provides input to an essay on whether or not pulp author Frank Morris was really Frank Morrison “Mickey” Spillane and I must say the evidence is compelling. Perhaps my favorite “extra” is MAC’s own resuscitation of his efforts to complete each of the Spillane unfinished manuscripts and how that process works.

Ultimately, the definition of a good biography of any author, is that it provides the reader with a full understanding of the subject while driving a burning need to read more of his work. By that standard, this is a great one. I must stop writing about this book now so that I can open up my copy of Kiss Me, Deadly and plunge once again into that rain-soaked New York world of Mike Hammer/Mickey Spillane.

Saturday, February 11, 2023

The Seventh Scroll (Ancient Egypt #2) by Wilbur Smith

"The Seventh Scroll", by Wilbur Smith is the follow-up to "River God", one of the best historical novels I have read in a very long time. "The Seventh Scroll" was meant to be read after "River God" but it is not exactly a sequel. It actually takes place in the present day with a couple of archeologist types who are out to discover the hidden tombs that were depicted in the first book. What an intriguing concept! What we got to live through before is now seen through the eyes of history, including all the distortions of history that are bound to happen. After all, what we assume to be true through archeological research isn't necessarily the way it really happened. 

The author does another intriguing thing in this book. He inserts himself into his own fiction, having a main character refer to Wilbur Smith as having authored the fictional "River God" from information uncovered in the first 6 scrolls found in the tomb. Of course it is the 7th scroll that the characters are after in this second book. This leads to some funny moments as the two main protagonists argue about just how accurate Wilbur Smith was in the first book; one of them goes so far as to dismiss Mr Smith as a hack writer who changes the historical record in order to include more sex and violence. It's a twisted loop whereby an author actually negatively critiques his own work...I guess you have to be pretty secure in your own writing career to do that. Regardless, it works wonderfully here. 

The novel itself is just as good as the first book in the series. When you get right down to it, this is a pretty straightforward adventure/treasure hunting story along the likes of "Romancing the Stone". But Wilbur Smith is an outstanding writer who has a knack for making you read just a little more and then still more despite any deadlines you may have to deal with. You know the two main characters will hook up by the end but it's not predictable how that happens. The dangerous scenes in the book are really dangerous and the suspense is spot on. As for historical accuracy...everything sure seemed to be accurate based on my limited knowledge of ancient Egypt and my trip to that country a few years ago.

I've read all the "Ancient Egypt" series (at least those written by Wilbur Smith himself) and count this one among the best. I've tried a couple of others, reportedly written with co-authors but frankly I believe Smith's only contribution to those may have been outlines or notes due to his advanced age. They're still coming out now, after his passing. Unfortunately, while they're "not bad", they sure don't live up to Smith's abilities. From here, the series returns to the past and the further adventures of Taita. Good stuff!

Sunday, February 5, 2023

The Humbug Murders by L.J. Oliver

Intriguing concept here: Taking place in 1833, Ebenezer Scrooge, at 30 years of age, acts as an amateur detective to solve the murder of his own boss, Mr. Fezziwig. I had high hopes for this novel, given the setup and they were mostly fulfilled. I especially enjoyed the character of Miss Adelaide Owen who comes to work as a clerk for Mr. Scrooge and demonstrates a keen mind along with a refusal to put up with the antics of men who feel themselves superior to women.

The authors work hard to insert Dickens references and characters throughout the story, not the least of which is Dickens himself in his role as a reporter. Also included are cameos by Mr. Pickwick, Miss Havisham, and the Artful Dodger among several others. In addition, there are plenty of new characters thrown in which have a major impact on the plot and who also seem like genuine (i.e. odd) Dickens characters. In the end the novel works well. I did not quite solve the case on my own but when the big reveal occurred, I felt I should have seen it coming. That's pretty much an ideal result for a mystery novel as far as I'm concerned.

Reportedly, this was to have been the first in a series. That seems unlikely now since one of the two authors behind the "L.J. Oliver" pseudonym, Scott Ciencin, passed away around the time of publication. (The other is E.A.A. (Elizabeth) Wilson). There do not seem to have been any more published since this one in 2015 either. That's too bad. I would have happily read the next and the next...

Saturday, January 28, 2023

Dune by Frank Herbert

This won’t be a real review as I can’t imagine I have anything to offer that hasn’t already been said by millions of fans worldwide. 

For me, this is a rare re-read. I first read Dune back when I was a teenager. I read it because my older brother had read it and I pretty much did everything he did. I remember him talking about the sandworms and about life on a desert planet where water (or moisture) was in such short supply that residents had to wear body suits that captured and recycled their own body sweat. In fact, that is really about all I remember from my own first read way back then, nearly 40 years ago.

I’ve known for many years that I’ve wanted to re-read Dune. I was simply too young back then to appreciate it. As a lifelong science fiction fan, I felt it necessary to re-visit this classic, often considered the greatest in the history of the genre. It is to science fiction what The Lord of the Rings is to fantasy. Not only did it win the Hugo award in 1966, it also won the very first Nebula award for best novel. It is considered a landmark of “soft” science fiction rather than the typical novel of the time that relied heavily on technology. Reportedly, Herbert deliberately down-played technology in his Dune universe so he could write about the politics of humanity, as opposed to the future of humanity's technology. 

Now having completed my second read through of this classic I almost hesitate to call it science fiction. There are any number of classic fantasy themes and in fact I would almost call it mythological. I have not read any of the sequels and am not sure that I will as I understand the character of Paul Atreides undergoes further transformation, not all of which is admirable. 

I’ve long had this on my incredibly short list of novels to re-read, a true rarity for me. I kept telling myself that “one day” I would finally do it. Well, “one day” finally arrived and I am so very glad I took this journey once again.

Highly recommended for all three of you out there who haven’t read it yet.

Saturday, January 21, 2023

Dr. Thaddeus C. Harker - The Complete Tales by Edwin Truett Long

Dr. Thaddeus C. Harker, along with his two assistants, the lovely Brenda Sloan and the muscular slow-witted Hercules Jones, travel the country in the guise of a travelling medicine show, selling their cure-all, “Chickasha Remedies”. But it seems that at every stop, they encounter crime and thus Doc Harker is obliged to utilize his considerable sleuthing skills, his forthright and charming personality, and his trailer that doubles as a criminology laboratory to solve the crimes.  His plans to thwart the criminals are quite complex and make good use of Brenda, (often as bait), and Herc as the muscle.

This book collects all three of the Doc Harker novellas ever published by the author Edwin Truett Long, a prolific pulp writer in the 1930s and 1940s, under a wide variety of pseudonyms. Altus Press (now Steeger Books) did their usual wonderful job in reprinting these stories from yesteryear. The stories are as follows:

Crime Nest, originally appearing in the June 1940 issue of Dime Detective Novels (Volume 1, Number 1)

Woe to the Vanquished, originally appearing in the June 1940 issue of Red Star Detective (Volume 1, Number 2)

South of the Border, originally appearing in the June 1940 issue of Red Star Detective (Volume 1, Number 3)

All are part of the Munsey-owned pulp mags (probably best known for Argosy) and in fact Doc Harker was used as the primary drawing card for the brand new launch of Dime Detective Novels pulp magazine in 1940 (not to be confused with the very popular Dime Detective Magazine).

The novellas themselves are filled with adventurous action, dangerous situations, and a variety of pulpy characters.  I found the plots to be a little on the convoluted side and felt like I wasn’t always privy to the clues that Doc Harker had available to him.  The stories probably are not as polished as what we might read today but given the sheer number of stories that this author turned out that is hardly surprising.  But in the end, they are good, hearty stories and good for an evening’s entertainment.