Category Archives: Reviews

Hardboiled, Noir and Gold Medals

gold_medalsJust finished reading Stark House’s excellent Hardboiled, Noir and Gold Medals. It collects Rick Ollerman’s essays about the authors of the paperback original era, along with some additional background material written specifically for the volume. A big part of the Stark House Press mission is to return the best books of the PBO era to print. Ollerman’s book explains why. It’s overflowing with background on the writers and their works. It’s meticulously researched and dangerous to book collectors who won’t be able to resist adding even more to their bulging libraries after reading it.

Michael L. Cook’s Mystery, Detective, and Espionage Magazines

mlcook_colorAdmittedly, the number of reference volumes on my bookshelves
is modest. Nonetheless, Michael L. Cook’s Mystery, Detective, and Espionage Magazines is the most essential, complete and informative book on its topic that I’ve encountered. Its 1983 publishing date is its only real drawback. Until recently, most of the action in genre fiction magazines occurred on newsstands prior to 1983. But with the rise of self-publishing/online distribution, change is rapid and every year dates a reference volume like this one.

Cook explains in his Preface the why and wherefore of the book. Since escapist literature—mystery, detective and espionage in particular—is a preferred reading choice of the general public, Cook advocates it’s an important resource to understand the attitudes and morals of the people who read it, within the context of the era in which it was published.

“There can be no claim made for completeness, although coverage of magazines published in the United States, England and Canada is fairly complete. Magazines included here are of both the professional and amateur categories, and nonfiction magazines providing commentary, as well as magazines providing fiction are included.”

Defining the cutline for what’s relevant and what’s not, can be a source of controversy for researchers and collectors. Cook devotes a page and half to clarify his decisions.

Information on yesterday’s popular culture has always been held in the hands of a few and not necessarily preserved through generations. In the pre-internet world it was often difficult to find authoritative resources and impossible to provide easy access to the information gathered. Few libraries valued and preserved this aspect of popular culture. Cook provides a list of the few who were building their collections in 1983.

A work of this size and scope can only be compiled with the assistance of many experts and contributors. Cook fills a page with his acknowledgements, many names familiar to collectors and avid crime fiction readers.

In the book’s introduction, Cook provides a concise history of fiction magazines beginning with story papers and dime novels, then moving on to pulps and digest magazines. He touches briefly on key publishers, writers and characters and ends with an acknowledgement to fanzines. “Fanzines have made for themselves a significant place in the study, development, and enjoyment of popular fiction and are a vital part of it.” No wonder a few, like The Not So Private Eye, are included in his listings.

The listings make up 627 pages, arranged alphabetically by magazine title. Each entry begins with
a narrative summary of the title’s significance, highlights of its run, a contents overview, key contributors and stories of particular note. Far too many fiction magazines saw only a handful of issues and Cook sometimes speculates on the reason a title ended such as poor funding, distribution, low quality, etc.

The wide-ranging sources of information gathered for each entry is noted, encompassing other reference volumes, private collectors, libraries, articles from magazines and fanzines, etc.

The publication history includes any title changes, number of issues, publisher, editors, original price, dimensions and page count, and current status— which for most is “discontinued.”

The listings are comprehensive and I have seldom run across a title that is not represented.

As mentioned, the main section covers U.S., Canadian and UK titles, but it’s followed by a section devoted to “Overviews of Foreign Magazines” that includes entries for Australia, Denmark, France, Norway and Sweden.

“Book Clubs in Profile” provides a rare look into the history of the book clubs that advertised in many of the magazines covered in the listings. Some like the Detective Book Club experienced amazing growth—from “the humble office in 1923 that rented for $480 a year” to a 23,000 square foot office on Long Island by 1954. Book clubs covered include Ellery Queen’s Mystery, Masterpieces of Mystery Library, Mystery Guild (US and British), Mystery Library, Raven House Mysteries, Thriller (British) and Unicorn Mystery.

Appendices
A: Magazines by Category provides a quick reference to check formats. Separated into three groupings for the U.S., Great Britain and Canada, magazines are grouped as Dime Novels, Pulp Magazines or Digest Size Magazines. Further divisions separate fiction from nonfiction magazines.

B: Key Writers in the Golden Age “While this list is by no means complete, either for the authors listed or for the magazines in which they were published, it will serve to identify many of the early markets for these selected writers.” A list of author pseudonyms follows.

C: Chronology provides the year in which each magazine originally appeared, beginning with 1882 (New York Detective Library) and ending with 1982 (Hamilton T. Caine’s Short Story Newsletter, Mystery News and Spiderweb). Paging through the years it’s easy to see when publishers felt most optimistic, and browsing the titles testifies how difficult it is to launch a title that lasts.

D: American True-Detective Magazines provides a partial list of magazines, noted “if for nothing more than identification, since many bear titles similar to fiction magazines.” A list of 41 titles is certainly better than nothing, but I wish it were more exhaustive and included their size. None
of the few pocket- or digest-size titles I’ve run across are included.

E: Canadian True-Detective Magazines

F: Sherlock Holmes Scion Society Periodicals “While some are of general interest to all who like Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, others are primarily of value only to their own members.”

G: Other Periodicals of Interest to the Collector Although its unlikely any of the 25 titles listed remain active, it may provide collectors new titles to seek out in secondary markets.

The final pages of Cook’s volume include a two-page Selected Bibliography, Index and seven pages of Contributors.

Mystery, Detective, and Espionage Magazines
Greenwood Press, 1983
Hardcover, 6.25” x 9.5” 800+ pages
Prices ranges from $50 to $200 in secondary markets
Available at many libraries for reference

Suspense Novel #3: Carl G. Hodges

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Suspense Novel #3 Naked Villainy by Carl G. Hodges

Of all the digests in Farrell’s Suspense series, Naked Villainy by Carl G. Hodges is the most provocative. The story’s first victim is shown on the cover in a sheer bra and panties—exactly what she’s wearing in the opening chapter.

“The light was weak, but good enough so that the black panties held no mystery.”

And later: “She had whirled to face me, one hand jerking up from the front of the black bra and tearing the flimsy cloth. A nipple pointed at me, the color of a pecan on top of a cup cake.” Steamy prose for 1951.

Hodges’ reverence for the Midwest MWA provides a wonderful surprise mid-novel when Lieutenant Davis visits one of the chapter’s meetings. Chapter president Bill Brannon is on hand, a journalist and crime fiction writer with reportedly over 5,000 stories and articles to his credit. His biography of con man Joseph Weil, Yellow Kid Weil, is mentioned, but Brannon wrote several other books as well as stories for Coronet, Reader’s Digest, Omnibook, Saga, Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine and many others. He used his middle name, Tibbetts, to write as William Tibbetts, one of more than a half-dozen pseudonyms he used. Known as “The Dean of Crime Writers,” Brannon was nominated for the Edgar Award in 1951.

In 1976, MWA produced the Mystery Writer’s Handbook, under the guidance of Lawrence Treat. Each chapter tackles an element of the craft, written by a veritable who’s who of the industry. William T. Brannon is onboard with a chapter on how to write true crime. According to Treat: “After reading it, all you need is to go out and do it.”

Back at the fictitious MWA meeting, Lennie Hilts had just sold From Jennys to Jets. As it turned out the book was published in 1951, as The Airmail Jennies to Jets as told to Leonard Finley Hilts.

Milton Ozaki, who apparently coiffed hair by day, and had a “police dog” named Sacre Bleu, receives a quarter page tribute. His novels, A Fiend in Need, The Cuckoo Clock and Too Many Women are mentioned—as is his pseudonym, Robert O. Saber.

Another MWA member, Allen Pruitt, identified by his pseudonym “because he was Commissioner of Public Welfare of the City of Chicago and I guess he figured it would be better to use a pen name for his excursions into the mystery writing field.” This was actually Alvin Emanuel Rose, a Chicago journalist in the 1920s and 1930s before becoming Commissioner. He wrote two novels as Alan Pruitt, The Restless Corpse (1947), which Hodges mentions, and Typed For a Corpse, in 1954.

The final attendee was Paul Fairman, author of The Glass Ladder, Harlequin #139. Fairman’s work appeared most often in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, but he also sold to The Saint, Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, Mike Shayne, Shell Scott—and earlier in pulps like Black Mask, FBI Detective Stories, and Mammoth Detective. He also wrote as Paul Daniels.

Getting back to Hodges, Naked Villainy is an excellent digest original that can leave you searching for more of his work. One of his short stories, “Murder Throws a Ringer” from Thrilling Detective (Dec. 1947), is included in The Noir Mystery Megapack from Wildside Press.

Sherlock Holmes & Mr. Mac in: The Affair of Lady Westcott’s Lost Ruby and The Case of the Unseen Assassin by Gary Lovisi

lovisi-cAuthor/bookseller Gary Lovisi is a frequent contributor to The Digest Enthusiast. I like his writing. In fact, that’s why I publish it myself. I’ve read plenty of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, but never The Valley of Fear, where the young Scotland Yard detective, Alec MacDonald (aka Mr. Mac), was first introduced. Now he’s back, with a prominent role in two new Sherlock Holmes adventures in Black Gat Books #11.

It’s obvious from the historical notes that follow each story that Lovisi did his homework before attempting to follow in the footsteps of a legendary author like Doyle. His grasp of the characters, the times, and where these new adventures fit in the Holmes canon are to be commended. The reference points in the stories themselves are kept brief and pertinent, adding credibility without digressing into fannish indulgence.

Both stories are nicely plotted with plenty of complications and twists to keep readers engaged and mystified. The pacing strikes the right balance between the style of Doyle’s originals and today’s more fast-paced narrative drive.

The first story, “The Affair of Lady Westcott’s Lost Ruby,” is the more traditional of the pair. Steeped in English custom and courtesy, it begins with Inspector MacDonald’s investigation of a suspicious burglary attempt. Events escalate quickly into a major dilemma when Lady Westcott herself disappears, compelling Mr. Mac to draw Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson into the affair. A missing person case with no apparent motive and no apparent kidnapper presents just the sort of challenge the great detective and his fans relish.

The second and final story, “The Case of the Unseen Assassin,” pits Holmes and his companions against a more modern-day threat—a serial sniper whose victims have no discernible connection to their killer. Armed with only their wits and the tools of the 19th Century, the trio of Holmes, Watson, and MacDonald must stop the killer before another victim is murdered.

The Sherlock Holmes and Mr. Mac stories of Black Gat Books #11 offer two entertaining mysteries in the style of the original Doyle classics. Fans of the great detective and old English police procedurals would do well to conclude both are worth their immediate engagement.

Black Gat #11 and earlier books in the series are available directly from Stark House Press and the big river for $9.99.

Down on the Street by Alec Cizak

downonthestreetAs the designer on Pulp Modern Vol. 2 No. 1, edited by Alec Cizak, I was predisposed to enjoy his latest book, Down on the Street, from Down & Out Books. Fortunately, the novel goes far beyond any struggle for objectivity. It is simply, terrific.

As crime fiction goes, Down on the Street is on the deep, dark side. Its main characters embrace one bad idea after another to make the rent or pay off an urgent obligation that looms around the corner. Lester Banks is a balding, world-weary cab driver who ekes it out in the same run-down apartment building as Chelsea Farmer, a college girl who looks arrestingly out of place in her squalid surroundings.

Their stories intertwine with touches of humanity between their lousy choices and the lousy consequences that follow. Like their mutual brainwave to pimp out Chelsea, making her fair game for a series of Johns who seem intent on turning prostitution into property. It all seems real, sprung to life inside the reader’s mind, through the characters’ street-smart dialogue and shortsighted schemes.

Even before I put the first chapter behind me, I was caught, transfixed as Lester and Chelsea plunge headlong into their world of excess, violence, and sex. Dangerous and vicarious at first, things quickly turn raw and sobering, as these broken spirits scrape toward rock bottom.

Cizak’s novel is a fast, brutal trip down on the street. The writing is terse, with a lyrical quality that belies its spare, driving narrative. “The air outside wobbled from the heat. He hustled to his cab and cranked the engine to get the A/C working.”

If you only try one new crime fiction author this year, make it Alec Cizak. His new book is well worth the price of admission and, more importantly, your time.

Suspense Novel #2

suspense_novel_2The second Suspense Novel was an original, The Case of the Lonely Lovers by Will Daemer, published in 1951. A pseudonym, Will Daemer, is an anagram for Wade Miller, the writing team of Robert Wade and Bill Miller, who also wrote as Dale Wilmer (another anagram) and more famously as Whit Masterson and Wade Miller. Perhaps their most famous novel as Whit Masterson, Badge
 of Evil (1956), was the source of Orson Welles’ screenplay for his film noir classic Touch of Evil (1958).

The Wade/Miller team wrote over thirty novels together. Their lifelong friendship began in childhood; they attended San Diego State together and even enlisted in the US Air Force in unison. Both writers were born in 1920. Bill Miller died much earlier, in 1961, while Robert Wade lived to the age of 92, until his death in 2012.

After 1961, Wade continued his writing career as a solo novelist and a movie and television scriptwriter. He was honored with several awards over his career, including the Private Eye Writers of America’s Lifetime Achievement Award in 1988.

The Case of the Lonely Lovers opens with a dark-eyed, young woman, one Betty Ackerman, dressed in a gayly flowered frock, running for her life. She chances upon an isolated house, its reluctant owner, Robert Muir, and his massive dog, Kahn. Only the mystery of what and why loom larger than the danger and desperation hinged on her disagreeable host, reluctant to help a damsel so obviously in need.

She explains she was kidnapped and how she only escaped by a stroke of luck. She pleads for him to believe her, to which he replies, “It doesn’t make any difference whether I believe you or not.”

A knock interrupts their strained conversation. A voice through the door, a police detective yells, “We’re looking for an escaped prisoner by the name of Betty Ackerman . . . I’d like to take a look around.”

But the ornery churl shares his aversion to the needs of others freely. He denies the detective entry, seeing it as the shortest route to end further interruption and investigation. Betty is quick to capitalize, and ekes out permission to stay the night, as he grudgingly unlocks one of the upstairs bedrooms for her.

Ed Lynskey, on MysteryFile. com, quotes the back cover copy from Evil Come, Evil Go, about Wade and Miller’s writing process. In part: “After discussing an idea at length, they outline extensively.” For me, this technique shows prominently in the tight plotting of The Case of the Lonely Lovers.

Tension builds masterfully as the fog of mystery behind “The Case” slowly clears. A conspiracy, with Betty unknowingly thrust into its center, in the fight of her life. As the main plot heats up, Wade and Miller simultaneously fuel the romantic triangle of Betty, her boyfriend Glen Proctor, and Muir, as she steadily thaws the cold heart of her reluctant host.

Most of the prose is purposefully composed, driving the plot, character depth or the emotional impact of the action. But a few lines stand out as more poetic, like this one near the climax: “She blamed the thin fog that had been sucked inland by yesterday’s heat and drifted like a grey broth at the windows.”

Like the first Suspense Novel, The Case of the Lonely Lovers is a terrific read, one that seems perfectly ripe for a new printing.

Captain Future Returns

Captain-Future500In the afterword to Avengers of the Moon author Allen Steele writes about his discovery of Captain Future and the Futuremen in a Popular paperback reprint he found on a drugstore spinner rack at the age of 11. His introduction to the series was similar to mine, which is to say, I anxiously awaited his revival of the characters in a new adventure.

Avengers of the Moon is as much a reimagining of the cast’s origin story as it is a new adventure, with both tightly woven together into a seamless space opera. Steele’s novel is remarkably true to the series’ roots, but updates its science and technology from its 1930s era. The entire cast is present and accounted for: Curt Newton, Otho, Grag, Simon Wright, Joan Randall, Ezra Gurney, and Ul Quorn. Each remains true to their character, but updated with current social sensibilities. Even the inane infighting between Otho and Grag, along with their pets Eek and Oog are present, but Steele wisely tones it down several notches. It’s there for a moment of nostalgia, and then he thankfully moves on with the story.

For fans, I think Avengers of the Moon rates five stars. Without the history, a newcomer won’t feel the same sense of wonder as each old friend makes their entrance, and may not have the same appreciation for their characterizations. Despite handling the task very well, it does require breaking into the momentum of the story.

Now that the whole crew has been reintroduced and recast, here’s hoping the next one will rocket us into the future and never let go until its last page.

Help Wanted

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Betty Fedora #3

As the “News Digest” section comes together for The Digest Enthusiast book six I’m in touch with several indie editor/publishers. Kristen Valentine of Betty Fedora reminded me of issue #3’s first appearance of a story by Victoria Reidfeld, titled “Breadcrumbs.” It was nominated, and very recently won the Derringer award for “Best Long Story” (4001 to 8000 words).

Betty Fedora #3 was published on September 18, 2016. Yesterday, when I looked on Amazon it had zero customer reviews.

Most indie projects struggle for existence. Their creators need financial and emotional support to help motivate them to continue. Buying their books provides financial help. But frankly, the balance sheet on these efforts is usually red even after a hundred sales. So why continue?

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Pulp Modern Vol. 2 No. 1

Each issue require hundreds of hours of effort to create. That’s not an inflated stat. I know from first hand experience. Indie publishers of series like Betty Fedora, Pulp Modern, and The Digest Enthusiast (and many others) strive to produce the best work possible. A Derringer award for a story is just one proof point of that quality.

Indie magazines and other indie projects need your help. Buy them. Read them. Rate them. Don’t sweat the review. A single sentence is enough. Write more if it feels right, otherwise a quick, honest summary is golden.

It matters. The number of reviews raises visibility on amazon, where it’s easy to be unnoticed among millions of books. And, just as important, your feedback is a voice from the dark. It helps publishers to know somebody out there cares about those hundreds of hours of work that are just beginning on their next edition.

 

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The Digest Enthusiast #5

Now go rate some indie digest magazines that you’ve read. Your help is wanted.

Betty Fedora
Crime Syndicate Magazine
Pulp Literature
Pulp Modern
The Digest Enthusiast
Weirdbook
(These are just a few of the titles available.)

On amazon.com, pick an issue, scroll down to the “Customer Reviews” section and click the “Write a customer review” button.

Thanks for reading and considering this request.

H.G. Wells Society Newsletter

wells_30Excerpts from Joe Wehrle, Jr.’s review of the H.G. Wells Society Newsletter #30 from TDE4:

“This may be a somewhat unusual entry in the catalog of digest-size publications, but I think the newly-redesigned H. G. Wells Society Newsletter certainly qualifies for inclusion. I recently received issue 30, Autumn 2015, with cover illustration by J. Begg, reproduced from the Illustrated London News of 25 January 1913.

“I find articles in the Wells Society publications to be very carefully researched and highly literate. A majority of the writers and the editorial staff have doctorates and associations with prestigious uni- versities. They tend to delve deeply into the subject matter, avoiding superficiality and the stereotypical.

“This newsletter is issued twice a year, and there is also a thicker, and very scholarly annual, The Wellsian.

“Subscriptions and general enquiries may be addressed to secretary Eric L. Fitch, 20, Upper Field Close, Hereford HR2 7SW, UK.”

H.G. Wells Society website

A.B. Shiffrin’s Cover Story

Suspense Magazine #1 Spring 1951

Stories from Suspense Magazine #1 Spring 1951

The opening scene of this story, depicted on the cover of Suspense Magazine #1, shows a naked woman, laying on her bed with her throat cut. “A Most Amazing Murder” by A.B. Shiffrin is a serviceable yarn, told first person by the detective who solves the murder.

A. (Abraham) B. Shiffrin was most famous for his broadway plays (Love on Leave, Angel in the Pawnshop, I Like It Here, Twilight Walk and Black-Eyed Susan); several were later produced for television. He also wrote novels (The Other Cheek, Blind Men, Told Out of School, Glitter, Mr. Pirate, and Return at Sunset) and has numerous short stories to his credit.

Here’s the opening paragraph to “Murder”:
“Never was the obvious so baffling. At least, not in my own experience. I was the cop in charge of the crazy case, so I can tell you all about it.”