Thursday, July 31, 2008

Friday's Forgotten Books: Contrary Pleasure by John D. MacDonald

Aside from the Travis McGee series, The Executioners (Cape Fear), and A Flash of Green, many of the John D. MacDonald books are difficult to find. That’s a shame because MacDonald is a great storyteller and his distinctive style is nothing short of exceptional.

I found a copy of Contrary Pleasure (1954) at a secondhand store. Oddly, a saucy blonde who has nothing to do with the story graces the cover.

The plot revolves around Ben Delevan, reluctant patriarch of the Delevan family and president of the Stockton Knitting Company. At 50 years of age, he laments that he has spent the majority of his life within the “worn and ugly walls” of the manufacturing company, inherited upon his father’s death. He sees a way out when a proposal for a merger comes his way, but guilt rises when he considers the impact on his relatives who have come to depend on the family-run business.

Contrary Pleasure is a soap opera similar to Dallas. Substitute Delevan for Ewings and knitting for oil and we’d have the screenplay for the oft-mentioned Dallas movie. The difference is, in MacDonald’s hands, the story is powerful and the writing poetic.

In typical MacDonald fashion, his flawed main character philosophically wonders about:

“...a civilization where this delicately engineered river of asphalt had become too cramped, too slow, too dangerous. Then it would become secondary and the bright plastic would fade and the light tubes fail and fabrics with catchy chemical names would flap in the night wind off the marsh.

It would die then, but without grace. Not the way the old city had died. The old city died in the way a forgotten doll is found up there behind trunks with rounded tops, wooden legs carved with care. And this would die like a tin toy, stamped into the ground and rusting.”

MacDonald said: "Every writer is going to put into the mouths of the people he wants you to respect opinions that he thinks are respectable. It's that simple." In the Travis McGee novels (I am a big fan), a lot of the eco sermonizing was a little obtrusive but here it works. What I respect about John D.'s environmentalism is that it wasn't meaningless diatribe but genuine passion and this was fifty years before it was the “in thing.”

Each of the character's lives is told in captivating detail. The ending is satisfying but perhaps could have been a little stronger. Even so, this book was a delight to read because MacDonald, in the words of Stephen King, is "the great entertainer of our age." I’m sure you will enjoy Contrary Pleasure.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Faust (1926)

I only recently watched the remarkable silent film, Faust, directed by F.W. Murnau, and I’m not sure what took me so long to see it considering I really enjoyed his earlier film Nosferatu (1922).

Faust is based on a German legend about a man whose good intentions become his downfall after he bargains with the devil. In Murnau’s poetic masterpiece, I was struck by the outstanding visual images he was able to create with the limited technology of the time. In a most unforgettable scene, the daunting figure of Mephisto (Emil Jannings), wings outstretched, looms over the miniature town planting the seeds of a plague knowing that Faust (Gösta Ekman) will set out to cure the people. The use of contrast between light and shadows, camera angles, imposed images and multiple shots all contribute to the exquisite special effects that were paramount to Murnau’s perfection. Some may find the sets and the imagery to be outdated, but as Roger Ebert wrote, “The world of Faust is never intended to define a physical universe, but is a landscape of nightmares.” While the music featured in this version is not the original score, it’s quite effective if a bit overextended by the end.

I’m a huge history buff, and anytime I watch a movie or read a book that I really enjoy, I have a compulsory urge to dig into the circumstances of what brought that particular piece to fruition and also the background of the creator... maybe I should have been a biographer.

Some interesting highlights from Murnau’s life: Faust was his last German film before heading to America. He went on to direct Sunrise (1927), which the British Film Institute named the seventh-best film in the history of motion pictures in 2002. Murnau did not see the premiere of his last film Tabu (1931); he died the week before in a car accident. Only 11 people attended the funeral, including Greta Garbo, Emil Jannings and Fritz Lang. Garbo requested a deathmask of Murnau be made, which she kept on her desk during her years in Hollywood.

Faust has certainly renewed my interest in the very talented visionary, F.W.Murnau.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Pulp Spotlight: Norbert Davis

Norbert Davis is one of the great pulp writers whose name has fallen by the wayside, overshadowed by giants like Hammett and Chandler. But thanks to Otto Penzler's The Black Lizard Big Book Of Pulps, two great stories by Davis have been revived, The Price of a Dime and You'll Die Laughing, and received with great enthusiasm.

Norbert Davis, sitting, right;
Dashiell Hammett, standing, right;
Raymond Chandler, standing, second from left.

Penzler explains in the forward to Dime that Black Mask editor, Joseph T. Shaw, published only five stories by Davis because Shaw didn't appreciate Davis's Thurber-esque approach to hard boiled fiction. Yet, it’s the whimsy mixed with violence that gives Norbert Davis his signature style. A perfect example is in Sally’s in the Alley (1943) where the protagonist, detective Doan, gets into a tussle with a good-looking Hollywood actress, and her concerned agent calls out:

“Hit her in the stomach!”
“What?” said Doan, startled.
The shadow jiggled both fists in an agony of apprehension. “Not in the face! Don’t hit her face! Thirty-five hundred dollars a week!”

But Davis also proves he can keep up with Hammett and Chandler in stylistic cynicism. In Sally:

"The Mojave Desert at sunset looks remarkably like a painting of a sunset on the Mojave Desert which, when you come to think of it, is really quite surprising. Except that the real article doesn’t show such good color sense as the average painting does. Yellows and purples and reds and various other violent sub-units of the spectrum are splashed all over the sky, in a monumental exhibition of bad taste. They keep moving and blurring and changing around, like the color movies they show in insane asylums to keep the idiots quiet."

It’s this combination of gifted prose, hard boiled action, sprinkled with humor that has compelled me to read Davis. However it can be difficult to find his work. His major novels and the Max Latin anthology are available from Amazon and I have ordered some of them. Still, there are many short stories from Detective Tales, Black Mask, Phantom Detective, etc. that have yet to be compiled.

So what happened to Norbert Davis? Perhaps, success came a little too quickly and at an early age. Davis began selling stories while attending college at Stanford. During a writing class, an instructor criticized one of Norbert’s efforts to which Norbert stood up and countered, “Sir, this is a check for $200 from Argosy. The editor didn’t find much fault with my story.” But the professor derided Davis by saying they were there to learn ‘literary merit.’ When Davis finished college, he continued to pursue his writing. His stories quickly turned to gold and his potential seemed limitless. In the mid 1940s, he left the pulps and exclusively wrote for magazines like The Saturday Evening Post where he could make more money. But that success was short lived and the ‘slicks’ began rejecting his work. John D. MacDonald pointed out that even though Davis produced some exceptional writing, it was mixed with segments that were lackluster. He goes on to say Davis could have learned more if he had stuck longer with the pulps. [Rue Morgue Press]

From what I found online, there seems to be some confusion concerning his death, but it's known that Davis was going through several stressful events. He was grieving over his son who was stillborn, he was increasingly frustrated with his career and he had received a diagnosis of cancer. On July 28, 1949, Norbert Davis, the man who had brought humor to the world of hard boiled writing, committed suicide by carbon monoxide poisoning. He was only forty years old.

The Mouse in the Mountain (1943)
Sally's in The Alley (1943)
Oh, Murderer Mine (1946) ...
Murder Picks the Jury (1947; written with W. T. Ballard)

The Adventures of Max Latin (1988)...

See also

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Tank Girl

My charmer in front of the Veterans Memorial in Elton, LA.

Batman: The Complete 1943 Movie Serial Collection

All the hype about Heath Ledger’s performance in The Dark Knight backfired on me. Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure it’s a great film and I’m grateful Christian Bale and director Christopher Nolan have rejuvenated a franchise that was in serious danger of imploding, but all the Ledger worshipping and long movie lines discouraged me.

Instead, I opted to reboot the Batman saga my own way by going back to the beginning. Not by the way of Michael Keaton or Adam West but further back to 1943 when Lewis Wilson played the Caped Crusader. If you haven’t ever heard of Wilson, don’t worry, neither had I, even though I was aware of the old serial.

My opinion is mixed; but first, my gripes, starting with the cover art for this 2005 dvd release. Columbia Pictures chose to use a scene that, while eye-catching, could very easily be confused with a current animated Batman feature. I realize their motive is to sell extra copies by creating a connection to the current Batman, but I feel this is a bit of a misrepresentation to snag the unsuspecting.

The biggest detraction is the racism. Early in the first episode, an empty Japanese community is explained as being evacuated by a “wise” (US) government. The main villain, a Japanese scientist who is working for Emperor Hirohito, has a henchmen turn on him, saying, "That's the kind of answer that fits the color of your skin." Other offensive remarks such as "shifty eyed Japs", "twisted oriental brains", and "squinty-eyes" are tossed in the narrative and dialogue. Considering the internment and treatment many Japanese Americans experienced during WWII, these cringe inducing moments might not be appropriate for younger viewers, and while I understand the film reflects the feelings of a nation drawn into WWII following Pearl Harbor, that doesn’t make it any easier to watch in 2008.

The low budget and formulaic plot add to the show’s silliness. All 15 episodes center on Batman and Robin thwarting the attempts of the one and only villain, Dr. Daka, who is out to annihilate America with his radium-powered death ray and a mind-control device to transform people into "zombie" servants. Columbia Pictures, with a reputation for being cheap, saved beaucoup bucks by buying a 1939 Cadillac for the Batmobile which doubles as Bruce Wayne's personal car – it’s surprising the Gotham City PD never made the connection. Not to mention the ill-fitting costumes of the dynamic duo are distracting, and in a hilarious scene, Batman loses his cape while fighting, but it mysteriously reappears before the fight is over.

On the positive side, this serial uses the old cliffhanger clichés relatively well. There is plenty of "fist-a-cuffs" with the bad guys and director Lambert Hillyer keeps the action brisk. Lewis Wilson makes a good first Batman/Bruce Wayne and at times he manages to rise above the campy action. One noteworthy item, this serial introduced the bat cave to the mythology, even though the fake bats on strings are a hoot.

True fans and collectors should not pass up this historical Batman but casual viewers should probably skip it and head off to the theater instead.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Friday’s Forgotten Books: A Trap for Fools

I'm in the process of polishing up my latest story and so my wife has kindly agreed to sub for me today on FFB.

A Trap for Fools by Amanda Cross

It’s actually been a number of years since I read A Trap for Fools. My grandmother, who is every bit the feminist and political activist, not to mention mystery enthusiast, tossed it in my lap and said, “You might like this.” As usual, she was right.

The story follows Kate Fansler, a professor of literature and amateur sleuth. With a lawsuit looming over the university after the peculiar death of an unpopular colleague, the administration looks to Kate to investigate. She soon begins to feel she’s been set up to fail, but she remains persistent in putting the pieces together, even if it means naming someone she cares about as a murderer.

Trap (1989) is the ninth out of fourteen Fansler mysteries written by Carolyn Gold Heilbrun. The Fansler character shares a lot in common with her creator, both being professors of literature and feminists. When the first Fansler novel, In the Last Analysis, was published in 1964, Heilbrun did not want to risk her untenured position at Columbia University, so she chose the pen name Amanda Cross. Heilbrun confirmed her identity only after she received tenure, the first woman in Columbia’s English Department to do so.

Despite critical acclaim and several awards, Heilbrun was only moderately successful. Some critics rebuff the Fansler series for spending too much time painting a cynical portrait of rivalry and sexism in academia at the expense of the plot. However, most of her books were well received by readers.

Sadly, Heilbrun committed suicide in 2003. According to her son, she was not ill, but felt that her life had been completed. In her final note, she wrote: "The journey is over. Love to all." In a 1997 book, The Last Gift of Time: Life Beyond Sixty, she refers to taking her own life.

Maybe it’s because I read this when I was young and easily impressed or it’s my own affinity for the academic life that gave this novel much of its appeal, but from what I remember, it was an entertaining whodunit. If I ever get my belongings out of storage (long story), I plan to give this book another read. -- Denise M.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Western Pulp: Ranch Romances

At a flea market, I recently picked up several old EQMMs, AHMMs, and a lone copy of a western pulp, Ranch Romances. Not knowing much about the series, I decided to buy the old May 1966 issue.

Some of the longest running pulp fiction magazines were dedicated to the western story, and Ranch certainly fits into the longevity category. This western-romance hybrid was the first of its kind created by Harold Hersey in 1924 and survived into the early 1970s after converting to entirely reprint in 1967. It’s been described by some as the "last of the pulps."

This issue features six stories with the most recognizable name being Giles Lutz with his novelette No Second Chance. Will McCann's Ex-Gunman stands out as a typical example from the compilation in a Shane-esque tale of a family man who straps on his guns one last time to cleanup a corrupt town. I expected the stories to feature Harlequin style romance, but interestingly, none of these did. They were straight forward action pieces.

--No Second Chance, Giles A. Lutz
--Big Man From Montana, W.J. Reynolds
--The Sunday-Horse Rider, Gordon Redmond
--Ex-Gunman, Will McCann
--One Of The Wild Bunch, Lester W. Merha
--Wild Kid's Sister, Sally T. Smith

Sunday, July 20, 2008

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

My wife and I spent the majority of the weekend writing and editing my latest story. We’re almost done and hope to have it submitted this week. We took a break to watch The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007). It stars Brad Pitt as Jesse and an amazing performance by Casey Affleck as Ford. The film is definitely a character study and takes its time telling the story, which I don’t mind but some may consider slow. James was never considered a hero in my neck of the woods but to a great many mid-westerners and southerners, he was a modern day Robin Hood who fought back against the unfair reconstructionist period following the Civil War. By the time he was killed in 1882, he was a larger than life hero who rivaled Mark Twain in iconic status. Brad Pitt, who knows a thing or two about celebrity himself, plays a paranoid world-weary James to perfection. I know Pitt’s good looks have always overshadowed his acting, but in Assassination, he turns in a solid performance.

However, as noted, Affleck is superb and steals the show as Ford in what can only be described as a creepy performance. His near infatuation, or love, if you will, for Jesse steadily turned into an opportunistic decision to become as famous as the legendary outlaw. After James’s death, Ford went on to reenact the day he killed Jesse James to packed theaters and, by his own account, “kill him” over eight hundred times. At first, the enthusiastic crowds ate up his performance. Ultimately, the audience grew dubious and began greeting him with jeers. His star fell as quickly as it rose. Ford’s immaturity and his inability to handle his new-found notoriety became his biggest burden. As the film wraps up with the 30 year old man reflecting on his poor choices, Affleck manages to garner some sympathy toward the character.

I’d recommend this movie about the man known as the “dirty little coward” who killed Jesse James.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

The Blame Train

Jerry B. sent me this funny poem for when you are having one of those days:

I am not allowed to drive the train,
The whistle I cannot blow.
I’m not allowed to say how far the railroad cars may go.

I’m not allowed to let off steam,
Or even clang the bell.
But let the damn thing jump the track and see who catches hell.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Christie's Mystery

To some extent, I forgot about Unsolved Mysteries, which ran from 1987 to 2002, hosted by Robert Stack. It reminded me a lot of In Search Of with its documentary style format and emphasis on unsolved crimes, unexplained phenomena and missing persons. Also highlighted were mysterious legends. I recently ran across the case of Agatha Christie’s disappearance in 1926:

Here's the link for part two of Unsolved Myseries:

Also, If you get a chance check out the 1979 film Agatha starring Vanessa Redgrave as Christie and Timothy Dalton as her husband. The film is a fictionalized account of her disappearance and though uneven is entertaining.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Friday's Forgotten Books: A Treasury of Great Mysteries

I'm the type of person who will walk into an antiques store, shoot past all the furniture, china and other trinkets and head straight to the books. On a recent antiquing spree, tucked away in a little nook near the back, I found a near mint condition of the two volume set, A Treasury of Great Mysteries edited by Howard Haycraft and John Beecroft (1957). I got quite the bargain at $1 for each book. The first volume in the anthology is a staggering 576 pages of eleven short stories, novelettes and full length novels from Agatha Christie, Erle Stanley Gardner, Ellery Queen, and Eric Ambler to name a few.

The first mystery I read from the collection was Margery Allingham's The Case of the White Elephant. I became an instant fan. Detective stories at the time could be straightforward and simple, but her storytelling and character development had a level of maturity akin to Christie. Elephant was my first introduction to adventurer and amateur detective, Albert Campion, who was originally a supporting character in The Crime at Black Dudley (1929). In Elephant, Campion squares off with an international spy ring and although the plot is slightly dated, it’s nevertheless compelling because Campion is a wonderfully drawn character. I’m planning to search out more of Allingham’s Campion books. The Guardian posted a great article in 2006 about what makes Allingham such a pleasure to read.

John Dickson Carr is a master at the locked room mystery and his The Incautious Burglar (also known as A Guest in the House) was probably the best short story I read from this set. Carr’s ace detective, Dr. Fell, is investigating the murder of the wealthy Marcus Hunt, who is stabbed in his own house wearing a cat burglar outfit. Was Hunt planning to pilfer his own uninsured art collection and, if so, why? Of course, every guest in the house has a motive.

I was unfamiliar with author Edgar Wallace and I found his contribution, The Treasure, unfortunately, weak. The plot has the protagonist, Mr. J.G. Reeder, employing a recently paroled thief to catch a murderer. The thief believes that Reeder, like all detectives, has a hidden treasure trove of stolen goods and so he trails Reeder in search of the alleged riches. The thief and his accomplice are led to a lodge where Reeder supposes (with no real substantial evidence) a woman's body is buried. The thief quickly locates a misplaced stone where he assumes Reeder's wealth is stashed. I won't tell you what happened next, but it left me wondering why a master detective would need the assistance of a bumbling thief to solve a crime. I won't judge Wallace's career on one short story considering that more than 160 films have been adapted from his works.

Alfred Hitchcock's Rear Window is an undeniable classic, yet I had never read the Cornell Woolrich short from which the film is adapted. The plot is basically the same but the story has fewer characters. Hal Jefferies is immobile for the most part and spends his days spying on neighbor, Lars Thorwald. Jefferies suspects Lars has murdered Mrs. Thorwald, and a police detective friend, Boyne, warily entertains Jefferies suspicions but eventually leaves him on his own. Jefferies recruits his day houseman, Sam, to help investigate. Sam is basically the roles of Grace Kelly and Thelma Ritter combined, which is where Hitchcock improved the story by adding more character depth and suspense. In the original, Sam has plenty of time to enter and leave Thorwald's residence whereas in the movie, we are on the edge of our seats as Grace Kelly's character nearly gets caught by Thorwald. Still a good story but the movie is better.

If you like golden oldies, it doesn't get much better than this collection. A Treasure of Great Mysteries is available used from Amazon.

The list of titles for A Treasury of Great Mysteries Vol. 1:
-- Murder In The Calais Coach, Agatha Christie
-- The Case Of The Crimson Kiss, Erle Stanley Gardner
-- The Treasure Hunt, Edgar Wallace
-- Maigret's Christmas, Georges Simenon
-- Puzzle For Poppy, Patrick Quentin
-- The Secret, Mary Roberts Rinehart
-- The Incautious Burglar, John Dickson Carr
-- The Lamp Of God, Ellery Queen
-- The Case Of The White Elephant, Margery Allingham
-- Rear Window, Cornell Woolrich
-- Journey Into Fear, Eric Ambler

Sunday, July 13, 2008

My Town Monday: More Rayne

Rayne has become my adopted home while away on business. It's a quaint little city just west of Baton Rouge, LA. My charmer and I were taken with the area immediately with it's many shops and local eateries. The antique stores have been a treasure trove of old books and, of course, the cuisine is excellent but that's to be expected when you are in the heart of Cajun country.

I previously blogged about the cemetery in the center of Rayne, which is unique in its own right, but the first thing that hops out at you when you visit are the frogs. Not live ones but as murals on many of the city buildings, fountain sculptures, road signs, and more. Rayne prides itself as the official Louisiana City of Murals.

The city square with it's frog fountain and stage.

3D mural on the side of a 'dollar' store.

History on the Chamber of Commerce bldg.

Didn't see any frogs crossing here.

Next to the 5&10 Worthmore's mural.

The local newspaper offices.

Hold the presses!

Little d outside the local Post Office.

One of the schools (elementary, I think).

It wouldn't be Louisiana without some crawfish!

The interstate interchange welcome mural.

It's hard to imagine, but I still haven't seen a single live frog. The closest I've come are those on the menu...!

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Interruption Reflections

I know people still like to read because I see their huddled masses in the bookstores. My charmer and I have been going to Books-A-Million, which is big in the south. No doubt, it's a Christian bookstore with it’s rather large section devoted to religion, but aside from that, it could easily pass for Waldens or Barnes and Noble. We go even if we are not buying anything. Just hanging around with like-minded people is soothing. The reason I'm mentioning this is because it seems outside of a bookstore or the blogging community, I am always running into people who don’t read anything other than computer screens or magazines. Whenever I'm on my break at work or just lounging somewhere in public, this scene always happens: I pull out my latest read, kick back, and within the first few paragraphs...

"What are you reading?"


"What's it about?"

"Various pieces he wrote for newspapers and magazines over the years."

"Is it any good?"

"Yeah, he was known to write a good one now and then."

"I've never heard of him."

Then my favorite part always occurs. The individual sits down and begins conversing with me about Scarlet Johanson's ample assets or anything else that pops in his brain. I have that awkward moment where I act like I'm still reading while I casually glance at him hoping he will go away. But it never works, so I surrender and close the book. I watch as he rambles on, and I find myself thinking about how people will talk about gaming, movies, politics, weather, gossip, sports, cars, etc., but never once say, "No, I didn't watch CSI last night because I was in the middle of a great James Patterson novel," or, "No, I don't need to see the movie because I've already read the book and the movie is never as good." I know there are people who enjoy Oprah’s book club but where...

Now how ironic is this! As I'm writing my blog on the laptop, a young man, who could literally have stepped out of Huckleberry Finn, walks up to me. A piece of straw hanging from his mouth is the only missing accessory. My charmer and I are at the park, and she's feeding ducks at pond's edge. By-line: Ernest Hemingway is sitting on the bench next to me.

"You're reading Hemingway?" he asks.

I look around like, how's it possible that this is happening again in the same day. I wanna yell for help.


"I love The Old Man and the Sea. He knew how to use words. His distinctive style gets right to the point. I hate reading books where it takes twenty pages to get to the point. Ya know what I mean?"


“I’ve read that Hemingway used to say, ‘Il faut d'abord durer’. He used to inscribe that in the books he signed for friends. I am probably saying it wrong but it translates to ‘First, one must last’.”

His wife, I'm guessing, yells that it’s time to eat. She’s roasting hotdogs on a nearby grill.

"Good talking to ya. Enjoy the book."


My charmer finishes feeding the ducks and walks back toward me, "I see you found a friend."

"Yes," I say, one more time.

I look in the direction of the young couple who wave to us and I wave back, thinking, there is hope.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008


Cemeteries have always fascinated and frightened me with equal zeal. When I was a kid, my dad would take me on genealogy hunts which quite often included excursions to cemeteries throughout upstate New York. At a graveyard near Ithaca, we found a headstone that read:

"Kind reader as you pass by
As you are now so once was I
As I am now so you must be
Prepare for death & follow me"

I remember that was pretty heavy for a ten year old, and it certainly stuck with me. That day, the information collected by my father cultivated my passion for history and the poetic verse imparted an early inspiration to write.

Continuing in the graveyard vein, Little d and I read in a newspaper of a famous cemetery in Rayne, Louisiana that faces the ‘wrong way’. I must admit, I never realized there was a ‘right way’ to lay out the dead, but apparently bodies are customarily buried in an east to west orientation. However, this particular cemetery made Ripley's Believe It Or Not! because it’s one of the only known Christian cemeteries where the dead are buried north to south. This little tidbit made it interesting enough for us to check it out. Local folklore about the cemetery's misalignment has been passed down over the years, but no one really knows why it doesn’t follow tradition. With my ace photographer in tow, here are a few pictures:

Next to the open 'vaults'.

Christ on the Cross, rising from the east.

St. Joseph's Chrurch on the north end of the cemetery.

Renovation notice.

Walking the narrow path.

Pictures originally posted on the Axiom Report on 4/8/2008.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

DVD: Dexter, Season 1

I had hoped to purchase Life on Mars, a British sci-fi drama series about a modern day cop who has a near-fatal accident and wakes up in 1973. He is either in a coma, insane or he has time traveled. Unfortunely, I couldn't get it, and it seems unlikely this show will be available in the states since the ‘powers-that-be’ have decided they want to turn out a revamped American fare rather than release another British masterpiece, like The Office.

So instead, Little d had mentioned the Showtime series Dexter. Somehow I hadn’t heard of it or the book which it’s based on, Darkly Dreaming Dexter, by Jeff Lindsay, but after reading a couple of good reviews I thought we should give it a try.

Michael C. Hall (Six Feet Under) plays Dexter Morgan, a serial killer who works as a blood spatter analyst for the Miami police department. Through flashbacks, we learn how Dexter developed his bloodlust for murderers, child molestors, serial drunk drivers, etc. It all started when he offed a neighborhood dog and his step-father confronted him about it. The step-dad, a cop, begins to channel Dexter’s urges, first with animals only, but after a partner is killed in the line of duty, the step-father plots a course for justice and takes Dexter down the path with him.

The show initially met with controversy from people who didn’t want viewers to empathize with a serial killer. My own worries were that Dexter was only going to kill those who deserve death and there wouldn’t be much tension. While he does only kill the bad guys, I found that I actually felt a bit of sympathy for one of his victims in the episode titled “Crocodile”.

I’m only a few episodes in and am finding it interesting. There are a few minor problems that I hope will be worked out since storylines will continue throughout the series. For example, Dexter begins a catch-me-if-you-can game with a ‘fellow’ serial killer, who is brutally butchering prostitutes, and he doesn’t seem the slightest bit concerned when this monster comes into his apartment when he's not home to leave doll parts in his freezer as clues.

We’ll see how the series unfolds. So far, I’m hooked.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Henry: A Good Day

Two Koreans lay dead in the center of town. One had his brains scattered across the road about three feet from his body. The other looked as though he was taking a nap; the sun shone on a youthful face.

We were in a little village leading to a bridge over the Nakdong River. The day was very hot. On the other side of the bridge were the rest of the dead. Things had gone well for our platoon with only a few minor injuries and we had kept the North Koreans from advancing.

The GIs crouched low to the bodies to snap souvenir photos of the deceased. An elderly woman from the village quietly sobbed on the edge of the roadside ditch opposite the bodies. I felt ashamed that we were treating the remains like hunters standing before their big game kill.

We basked in success of the day, but in a few weeks we wouldn't be so lucky. Most of the GIs would soon be dead, but today, for us, it was going well.

Originally posted on the Axiom Report as "Henry's Life: A Good Day" on 3/4/2008.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Silent night at the movies: Sherlock Jr. (1924)

Richard Schickel: "The impeccable comedian directs himself in an impeccable silent comedy. The man with the flat hat and the dead pan has a night job as a movie theater projectionist but daydreams about becoming a famous (and natty) master detective. In real life he is falsely accused by a shameless cad of stealing a watch from his girlfriend's father. At work that evening he sleepwalks himself into the film he's projecting (its plot eerily mirrors his real-life problem) and solves the crime in a series of magnificently imaginative, physically perilous, perfectly orchestrated gags."

Wikipedia: "Into the film: Keaton "walked" into the movie via the power of suggestion. The scene shifted back and forth several times from the projectionist's booth to the movie that was being shown. But for the last shift, instead of showing the movie, the camera this time showed a stage with live actors, designed to replicate the look of the movie. Therefore, Buster actually climbed onstage, but created the illusion of joining the movie. It wasn't until the 1940s that Keaton revealed that he and his cameraman had used surveyor's instruments to position him, and the camera, at exactly the correct distances and positions to provide the illusion of continuity."

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Forgotten Kids' Books: Dig Allen

I noticed a little late that all my favorite sites were spotlighting forgotten books yesterday. Patti Abbott is the host behind this wonderful idea. Though I’m new to the Blogger community, I’m not new to blogging, so I dug into my archives to retrieve a piece on an obscure book series. I’m a day late, and probably a dollar short, but here's my rewrite on this post from March 2008:

I’m betting that most readers have never heard of A Dig Allen Space Explorer adventure. I certainly hadn’t when I saw two books, Journey to Jupiter and Trappers of Venus, for $3.50 at an antique store. Wondering if the old hardcover books were worth the price, I did a quick search on my BlackBerry and discovered that these little gems were from a series of six juvenile science fiction books written from 1959 to 1962 by Joseph Greene, who also created the TV show Tom Corbett, Space Cadet. The series about a team of teen explorers from the 22nd century failed to sell and was discontinued after the 6th installment.

My eye also caught a lithograph of a minstrel playing some type of flute. The lithograph was priced at $75.00 and I managed to talk the owner down to $50, but I still wasn't sure. It’s only worth probably $10 bucks but it's the first piece of art that's jumped out to me since my trip to Belize. Little d and I went back and purchased the lithograph and named it The Minstrel of Metairie. It’s by an artist named Soulé.

Also, here’s a site devoted to Dig Allen.

Parts of this blog were originally posted on the Axiom Report on 3/8/2008.

Friday, July 4, 2008

So much to read, so little time

Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine (August); Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine (September):

I admired Mickey Spillane's chutzpa. He once famously said, "I'm the most translated writer in the world, behind Lenin, Tolstoy, Gorki and Jules Verne. And they're all dead..." When he was lambasted for his writing, he'd sling back, "Those big-shot writers could never dig the fact that there are more salted peanuts consumed than caviar... If the public likes you, you're good."

Spillane, who passed away in 2006, left behind a total of six Hammer novels in progress that Max Allan Collins, a Spillane aficionado, is preparing for posthumous publication. EQMM’s Black Mask section features Mickey Spillane's There's A Killer Loose!, a short story adapted by Collins from an unproduced radio script from the early 1950’s. I found Killer a bit predictable and dated, but I give Mr. Collins credit for seamlessly finishing Spillane's work. I'm looking forward to their next collaboration with the return of Mike Hammer in The Goliath Bone.

By contrast, I enjoyed AHMM's mystery classic The Leopard Man's Story by Jack London. I'm not alone in my opinion that London's short stories are superior to his novels. Western writer Dale L. Walker writes: "London's true métier was the short story... London's true genius lay in the short form, 7,500 words and under, where the flood of images in his teeming brain and the innate power of his narrative gift were at once constrained and freed. His stories that run longer than the magic 7,500 generally—but certainly not always—could have benefited from self-editing." [Wikipedia]

EQMM's Department of First Stories features Shooting the Moon by lawyer-turned-writer Thomas Humphrey. A business lawyer comes to question whether his defense attorney and best friend is interested in helping him or framing him for murder. A good read that had me guessing who's the murderer up to the last paragraph. According to the blurb this notable story is not only Humphrey’s first published story but his very first effort.

John C. Boland's Sargasso Sea (AHMM) is a clever breezy tale. A bored school teacher gets what's coming to him after he contemplates murdering his wife on a cruise ship -- in Twilight Zone style.

A Nice Old Guy by Nancy Pickard (EQMM) is an easy going mystery that pulled the rug out from under me a couple times. The nice man of the title meets a wealthy, sweet old woman in a Florida coffee shop, but there is more going on then discussing grandchildren and Van Gogh art.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Fire in the Sky

My charmer at the beginning of our 4th of July weekend...

A Yankee enjoying a southern fireworks display...

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Guest Blogger's Review: Next

I just read Michael Crichton’s 2006 ‘thriller’ Next about genetic engineering including interspecies hybrids, cloning and gene therapy, plus other topical issues like DNA testing, sperm donors and selling eggs.

I’m not sure what made me pick up the book, other than there is a monkey on the cover and I like monkeys, but the clever use of the barcode also grabbed my attention… as humans, we are a product of our DNA and perhaps symbolically caged by it. But my fascination with cover art is not really relevant!

As expected from Crichton, he takes a dense subject and somehow manages to make it understandable but the story tends to suffer under the large cast of characters and multitude of subplots. We have the greedy big-business investor who resorts to sabotage to gain control of a biotech company run by an unscrupulous geneticist going through a divorce and wants to use her genetic defects as a way to gain custody of their children. The biotech research technician discovers through the use of unapproved methods that their gene therapy treatment cures addictive behavior in humans but has fatal consequences. Then there’s the sharp, ethical lawyer who ends up on the other side of the system when a slick yet bumbling bounty hunter goes after her and her son because they contain the same genetic material as her miraculous father who disappeared after she lost a court case where his cancer-curing cells were awarded to the biotech company because he signed a document allowing them to utilize his tissues during cancer treatment. We also have the researcher who used his blood to create a “humanzee” hybrid and he has to rescue his ‘son’ from the laboratory before they destroy monkeyboy, the evidence of his non-sanctioned testing.

Is your head spinning? Well, there are even more subplots, but that’s enough to prove that a lot is going on in this novel. Some storylines are dropped with a quick sweep under the carpet while just a few are wrapped up in an ending tailored for a Hollywood movie.
So maybe it’s not the best drama/suspense/action story but it is a well crafted social commentary on the ethical and legal issues of genetics research. Crichton challenges us to think about how far we are willing to go in treating our bodies as products and at what price tag. Is it ok to patent genes? In what way can human tissues be used for research purposes? Should certain types of research be banned? Should academics be allowed to profit from research like corporations? If you want to know Crichton’s point of view, then you should read the book. -- d.Mix

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Season Three

Since my charmer and I are often looking for something to counteract the current monotony in television, we turned to a classic: Alfred Hitchcock Presents.

I've always been a fan of Hitchcock, and who isn't? Psycho, Rear Window, Frenzy, Strangers on a Train, Vertigo, The Birds, and my favorite, North by Northwest – these films are a cornerstone of our cinema culture. He made movies from the 1920s to the late 1970s. No other director or actor, maybe with the exception of John Wayne, has had such an impressive run.

From 1955 to 1961, Alfred Hitchcock Presents ran as 30 minute episodes. In 1962, the show was extended to a full hour and renamed The Alfred Hitchcock Hour until its end in 1965. Hitchcock directed only one or two episodes per season, but a who’s who of renowned names like Robert Altman, Arthur Hiller, and Robert Stevens seamlessly filled in.

Each episode followed a memorable format. Beginning with the music of Charles Gounod's distinctive, "Funeral March of the Marionette", and the camera centered on a simple line-drawing caricature of a plump profile being gradually eclipsed by the shadowy figure of Hitchcock. Opening and closing vignettes featured Hitchcock parodying some aspect of the program and poking fun at the sponsors. Can you imagine anyone today having such clout?

The anthology contained a mixture of melodramas and mysteries dealing with terror, horror, dark humor and twist endings where morality and justice prevail. A revolving door of veteran performers, like Mary Astor, Peter Lorre, and Vincent Price mixed with newcomers like Jack Klugman and William Shatner, portrayed characters who typically possessed some dark secret that became a part of their own undoing by the end of the episode.

“The Glass Eye” in this collection is indicative of the quality of the series. The episode stars Jessica Tandy who plays a lonely woman named Julia who has fallen in love with a famous ventriloquist named Max Collodi. She attends all of his performances and sends letters requesting to meet him and one day, he finally agrees. She arrives at his hotel room and finds him sitting in the shadows with his small dummy. Julia is overwhelmed in Max’s presence and tries to touch him. She screams when his body falls over and one of his glass eyes rolls across the floor. The dummy, furious, stands up and demands that she leave. Max had been the dummy all along.

Ok, I didn’t give you a spoiler warning but there are thirty-eight others just as good.

So, if you've had enough of House and CSI's tired and predictable approaches, check out the master of suspense and a truly unique show that Hitchcock described in “Night of the Execution” as "dark alleyways of human nature."

Parts of this blog were originally posted on the Axiom Report on 6/18/2008.