----

----
Buster Keaton in Sherlock Jr., 1924

A Holiday to Matheran

As we left our holiday cottage, to return home in the city, my wife said, "Look over your shoulder before you leave so that we come back again." Read about our recent trip to Matheran, the forest on the head, and the smallest hill station in India, at B+ve.

April 23, 2014

How the West Was Written by Ron Scheer

Author Ron Scheer
© Buddies in the Saddle
I was fourteen when my paternal uncle introduced me to my first western, Sudden, by British author Oliver Strange. He used to read the Corgi editions in a single sitting of two hours. By the time I finished reading the ten adventures of the lightning-quick Texas outlaw, and an additional five by compatriot Frederick H. Christian (writer Frederick Nolan), I was hooked to western fiction. 

I followed up the Sudden series with westerns by J.T Edson, Zane Grey, Max Brand, George G. Gilman's Edge, Wayne D. Overholser, Giles A. Lutz, and Louis L'Amour whose Flint remains one of my favourite novels in the category. 

Over the past three decades, I read many westerns by various authors. I read them without pattern or proper knowledge of the genre. It was only in the past few years, and especially after I started blogging, that I realised there was far more to westerns than gunfights, saloon brawls, and rustling. My understanding of the Wild West has been coming mainly from reading about early and historical frontier fiction on blogs published by veterans in the field, James Reasoner, Ed Gorman, Ron Scheer, and Richard S. Wheeler, among several illustrious writers. Their reviews and articles about western stories in particular and western fiction in general are as interesting as the western novels I read. Only now my reading of westerns has extended to both early and contemporary books.

My education in frontier fiction is set to get a boost when I read Ron Scheer's just-released How the West Was Written, Frontier Fiction, Vol.1, 1880-1906. The book—the first of a two-volume series on frontier fiction during 1880-1915—is published by Beat to a Pulp whose editor-publisher David Cranmer describes Ron as "the premier reviewer of Western literature." I couldn't agree more as I'm a lot wiser about the Wild West after reading his many in-depth reviews of western books and films. If you're a fan of westerns, then you should head over to his blog Buddies in the Saddle.

While the title tells you what the book is about, here is a brief description from the introduction:


This book began as a question about the origins of the cowboy western... how it grew from Owen Wister’s bestseller, The Virginian (1902), to Zane Grey’s first novels a decade later. A reading of frontier fiction from that period, however, soon reveals that the cowboy western was only one of many different kinds of stories being set in the West.

Besides novels about ranching and the cattle industry, writers wrote stories about railroads, mining, timber, the military, politics, women’s rights, temperance, law enforcement, engineering projects, homesteaders, detectives, preachers and, of course, Indians, all of it an outpouring between the years 1880–1915. That brief 35-year period extends from the Earp-Clanton gunfight in Tombstone, Arizona, to the start of the First World War.

The chapters of How the West Was Written tell a story of how the western frontier fed the imagination of writers, both men and women. It illustrates how the cowboy is only one small figure in a much larger fictional landscape. There are early frontier novels in which he is the central character, while in others he’s only a two-dimensional, tobacco-chewing caricature, or just an incidental part of the scenery.

A reading of this body of work reveals that the best-remembered novel from that period, The Virginian, is only one among many early western stories. And it was not the first. The western terrain was used to explore ideas already present in other popular fiction—ideas about character, women, romance, villainy, race, and so on. A modern reader of early western fiction discovers that Wister’s novel was part of a flood of creative output. He and, later, Zane Grey were just two of many writers using the frontier as a setting for telling the human story.


How the West Was Written promises to be the literary equivalent of the epic film How the West Was Won, 1962. The book is currently available as an ebook for Kindle and in paperback. Ron Scheer says there will be a second volume for the years 1907-1915.

April 22, 2014

Love Story, 1970

A short run through a popular film of the seventies for Overlooked Films at Todd Mason's blog Sweet Freedom.

Ryan O'Neal is probably best remembered for the soap opera Peyton Place. But when I think of his films I immediately think of Love Story (1970), based on Erich Segal's popular novel, and Irreconcilable Differences (1984) where a little girl takes her warring parents to court with the intention of divorcing them. I've seen little else. 

Love Story is both a love story and a family drama where Oliver Barrett IV (O'Neal), a Harvard Law student, risks the wrath of his wealthy and elitist father by falling in love with an ordinary but intelligent girl, Jenny (Ali MacGraw), and marrying her. But their love is doomed for reasons other than familial opposition. Directed by Arthur Hiller and written by Erich Segal, Love Story is a poignant tale of two mature adults whose love and friendship depends on complete honesty with each other. 

While the late Erich Segal wrote in a clean and simple style, he weaved emotional stories, playing on the sentiments of his many readers. I believe when Love Story was released people came out crying from cinema halls. His Man, Woman and Child (written in 1970, filmed in 1983) was no less sentimental as a married man and father of two daughters grapples with unexpected events after he learns that he has a son from another woman, the result of a past affair. He wrote lines that became popular like "Love means never having to say you're sorry" in Love Story and "Sheila is why I believe in marriage" in Man, Woman and Child. I never saw Oliver's Story (1979), the sequel to Love Story and also based on a Segal novel.

Love Story is a nice depressing little film. But whatever happened to Ali MacGraw?

April 17, 2014

A short break

I'm on a short holiday from Friday, April 18, through Sunday, April 20, during which time I'll not be posting anything. I'm leaving my laptop behind but I'll be reading other blogs on my cellphone and tablet, although I may not have the time to comment. On this trip I'll be reading a book and an ebook respectively—Stallion Gate by Martin Cruz Smith and The Education of a Pulp Writer & Other Stories by David Cranmer. David is the editor-publisher of Beat to a Pulp, a webzine that publishes short stories in many genres. I'll be with my family and giving us company in the hill station will be lots of birds, monkeys, and horses, and unfortunately people too. A happy Good Friday and Easter weekend to you all.

April 16, 2014

Anne by Fanny Stevenson, 1899

She was, at last, however, forced to believe that she was growing old. She was old, and the days were flying past her with an incredible rapidity.

© Wikimedia Commons
I had no idea Robert Louis Stevenson’s wife had written a short story. I would probably have missed ‘Anne’ in Scribner’s Magazine,  July 1899, had she not been referred to as ‘Mrs. Robert Louis Stevenson’ in the contents page. Inside she is mentioned as Fanny Van de Grift Stevenson. The famous Scottish novelist and poet was her second husband.

‘Anne’ is the touching story of a gentle old woman who, one spring morning, spends a few quiet moments on a lovely hill reminiscing about her past, her childhood and youth, her marriage to John, ten years her senior, the purchase of their first and only house, and also thinking about their shared present as they grow old, slowly lose their faculties, and prepare to meet their maker. Anne has no children and she has been lavishing all her motherly instincts on her husband, petting and spoiling him like a child.

As Anne dreams on, she hears a clear voice and sees a familiar face, that of Marian, her mother’s cousin who died when Anne was a little child. Anne is startled and frightened when Marian tells her that she is a spirit and that they are not in Anne’s dream. Anne is, however, unwilling to accept that she is dead.

"Don't, don't!" cried Anne; "don't repeat that dreadful word! I am not, I cannot be! And yet I know, and hate the knowledge, that it must come to me very soon, for I am, as you say, an old woman. Let me enjoy this beautiful dream wherein I am still young. But is this youth?"

When a troubled Anne returns home through a mysterious fog, she finds John sitting by the table, leaning forward, probably asleep, but her husband sees nothing and hears nothing when she kneels beside him and places her hands on his.

"Oh, my dear old husband," she said; "husband of my youth and of my old age; we are one; we cannot be parted. I will not leave you. I shall wait beside you."

In the end Anne and John pass out of the house as their serving-maid shouts aloud, "Help, help, master is dead!"

The philosophical underpinning of the story is evident. Anne looks at the inevitability of life and death in a beautiful way, and accepts it, however reluctantly. There is nothing morbid about the story. It is a clean and simple tale with a touch of the supernatural, if you like. Although ‘Anne’ was written at the end of the Victorian era, the writing style is not Victorian.
  

Fanny Stevenson, who was known for her charm and wit and who did not leave her devoted husband in spite of his unfaithfulness, collaborated with him on at least one work of fiction called The Dynamiter, classified as pulp. The 1885 novel is available free online.

April 14, 2014

Reading Habits #8: 12 questions about blogs

1. What is your motivation for reading other blogs?
Me: I have two reasons: one, getting to know other likeminded bloggers (I have more blog friends than real friends), and two, a shared interest in books and films (I have learned a lot about both over the past few years). Although I haven't personally met any of my fellow-bloggers, I feel like I have known them for a long time. It has been a fruitful blog journey so far.

2. Do you visit other blogs out of a sense of obligation?
Me: Yes and no. I visit several blogs during the week, some more often than others depending on the content and time on my hand. First, I make it a point to visit those blogs whose owners visit mine, a sort of quid pro quo, as most things in life are. Then, I visit bloggers who don't usually hop over to mine; I like to read what they post though I may not leave a comment. Conversely, other bloggers whose blogs I don’t look up regularly visit mine, and I appreciate that. Finally, I visit random blogs that come up during “search” on the internet or in “comments” on other blogs. I visit these blogs on a one-off basis though I may “follow” them later.

3. Do you at times skip blogs that you frequent or follow?
Me: I do, sometimes because I genuinely forget and sometimes because of a serious lack of time. Besides, there are indefatigable bloggers who post faster than I can visit, read, comment, captcha, and exit the first time. I don't know how they do it and I say this with not a little envy. I find getting out of the bed in the morning easier than getting a post out of the way.

4. Do you read the entire post on other blogs or do you skim through and get the essence of it?
Me: I read the entire post from top to bottom even if my interest is waning, my coffee's getting cold, I'm missing a deadline or I'm running late for the 8.23 am train to work, and you know how important those last three things are.

5. Do you always leave a comment every time you visit another blog?
Me: Mostly I do and if I don't, it’s because I have nothing concrete to say. Sometimes I like a post very much but I genuinely don't know what to say. There have been times when I have left a comment and wondered later if I'd said too much or too little, too smart or too dumb, sounded too zealous or what.

6. Are you completely honest in your comments on other blogs?
Me: Almost always. But when I’m saying good things about a post, I’m not being polite, I actually mean it.

7. After reading a review of a book by a fellow-blogger, do you really mean it when you say that you're going to add it to your growing TBR pile?
Me: ‘I’m going to add it to my TBR pile’ is probably the most done-to-death line in blog comments. I mean it when I say it, but I never say when I’m going to read it. I make a mental note. Generally, on a scale of 1 to 10, my score is a poor two, maybe one and a half, which isn’t bad considering the sheer number of “new” authors and books I read about on other blogs every week. My intent is good.

8. Are you impressed or intimidated by what other bloggers post?
Me: I'm both impressed and intimidated. I'm impressed by the kind of books and films my fellow-bloggers review, not to mention the way they review them, and intimated by the superior knowledge and understanding they bring to those reviews.

9. What do you like reading most on other blogs?
Me: Let’s take books. I like reading about miscellaneous stuff, like a blogger’s or an author’s writing process or a visit to a vintage bookstore or new additions to the TBR pile or who is reading what, and then there are the reviews.

10. Do you speak the way you write on your blog?
Me: Not always, sometimes I blow up my writing. For instance, I may use certain words or terms that I'm never likely to use in a conversation. In my answer to Q3 I used the word "indefatigable;" in speech, I'd use the word "tireless," it's easier on the tongue. I take creative liberties.

11. Does your blog reflect the kind of person you are?
Me: Mostly, yes. For example, when I overreact or get carried away in my own posts or in my comments on other blogs, that’s me. I have a rather exaggerated disposition towards most things but as I have been saying all along, I mean it.

12. Are you proud of your blog and do you show off?
Me: I’m and I do. What do you think this post is all about!

All answers submitted by me in this post are true to the best of my knowledge and disbelief. What are your answers like?


For the previous seven Reading Habits, including an animated conversation between a paperback and a hardback, look under Labels.

April 10, 2014

Public Murders by Bill Granger, 1980

A little-known author and his little-known crime fiction make their way into Friday’s Forgotten Books at Patti Abbott’s blog Pattinase.

Soon it would be over. Now she could see. There was the knife only. She could see her own terrified eye reflected in the blade. She watched her own eye staring at her.

My copy of the book. © Prashant C. Trikannad
 
If someone asked me which was the grittiest crime novel I'd read in recent times, I'd have no hesitation in saying Public Murders by Bill Granger, the late journalist turned novelist from Chicago.

The story begins with nine men watching porn in a theatre. One of the men gets up from his seat and walks out. He follows Maj Kirsten, young, good-looking, blonde, Swedish, into Grant Park, Chicago, and brutally rapes and murders her. She is discovered naked and mutilated by a black kid playing softball with his friends.

Soon, two more young, good-looking, blonde immigrants are raped and killed in and around Grant Park. One of them, famous porn star Bonni Brighton, is knifed from behind and neatly cut from back up while watching her own film inside a theatre.

There are suspects including Bonni’s German father, Frank Bremenhoffer, who has disowned his daughter for being a cheap whore. But after months of intense public, media, and political scrutiny, the hard-nosed Chicago law enforcers are nowhere close to apprehending the serial rapist-killer.

Desperate for a closure, investigators send feisty policewoman Karen Kovac, young, good-looking, blonde, as “a decoy to entice a maniac.” Kovac is a single mother who wants to be transferred to homicide.


The characters
There are no heroes, only characters, like those you'll find in an Ed McBain novel. Their names are suggestive of actual Chicago policemen. Matthew Schmidt, “the tall, cadaverous lieutenant of homicide,” and Jack Donovan, chief of the criminal division for the state's attorney’s office, are the principal investigators. They are assisted by Sid Margolies and Terry Flynn, two no-nonsense plainclothes sergeants.

Breathing down their necks are Leonard Ranallo, chief of homicide, Thomas P. Halligan, the new state's attorney, and Leland Horowitz, first assistant and chief political meddler.

Mario DeVito is in charge of trial work at the state’s attorney’s office; Maurice Goldberg is a young assistant at Area One Homicide, where the crimes take place; and Karen Kovac is out to prove her worth as sex bait.

Bill Granger gives the reader a glimpse into the rather bleak personal lives of the law enforcers which is enmeshed with their professional duties. They have serious issues but they don’t let it affect their work. Matt Schmidt has a debilitating illness and his wife won’t wake him up at night, while Jack Donovan, father of two children, is separated from his runaway wife who is insane.

Most of the men are known to one another and 
have worked together before. Some of them, like Jack and Mario, are friends and depend on each other. The men work on this special case as a single unit. They are tough and competent.

Final word
Public Murders is a harsh portrayal of the underbelly of Chicago, its gritty crime investigation division, and its noisy criminal courtrooms.


Again, in the best traditions of a McBain, the novel is strong on police procedurals and courtroom procedures, police jurisdictions and overzealous investigation. The entire story revolves around these elements of crime fiction. Granger does not hold back. His style is blunt, even sexist and racist at times, in keeping with the overall narrative. His description of crimes is graphic but not overly disturbing. There is plenty of dialogue, a lot of it short and coarse; the way cops talk, straight from the shoulder. His detectives appear conscientious and play by the rules, somewhat reluctantly. There is dark humour. And there is frustration as the case drags on.

This is a realistic story that isn’t real. As Granger observes in the author’s note, “Realism presents a problem in this book. The novel is set in Chicago. Chicago is portrayed as it really is… Nevertheless, the story is fiction.”

Did I enjoy it? Very much.

Crime fiction buffs such as Sergio (a sworn Ed McBain fan) at Tipping My Fedora, Tracy at Bitter Tea and Mystery, and Col at his Criminal Library will like this book. I just hope they haven't read it yet.


© Chicago Sun-Times
The author
Bill Granger (1941-2012) was born in Wisconsin and died in Chicago where he lived most of his life. He specialised in political thrillers and wrote some 25 novels. His first was The November Man (1979), an espionage thriller. He also wrote under the pseudonyms of Joe Gash and Bill Griffith. Prior to becoming a published writer, Granger was a journalist at Chicago Tribune and other Illinois newspapers. He also served briefly in the US Army. Public Murders won an Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America in 1981.

There is very little about Public Murders on the internet. However, I read a fine obituary of Bill Granger by Dennis Hevesi in The New York Times, May 5, 2012. Among other things, he says, “Mr. Granger’s favorite, and perhaps best-known, book was Public Murders, in which the city is in an uproar as a rapist-murderer strikes again and again. Public and political pressure exacts an emotional toll on the tough, foulmouthed detectives investigating the crimes.”

April 8, 2014

Q1 review: six books short

Classic Words Free, the Android version of the classic board game Scrabble (or Spellofun as I knew it in childhood), is to be blamed for the fewer number of books I read in the first quarter, January-March. I've been addicted to the game since early February that cost me at least six books if not more. The six books I didn’t read would have covered one each of espionage, science fiction, horror, and fantasy, and two of nonfiction.

My target was 15 books and an unlimited number of short stories. Instead, I read just nine books and twenty short stories, and a dozen comics I didn’t keep track of.

The only consolation, as I see it, is that I learned new and often unpronounceable words. The built-in Scrabble dictionary is from another planet. I also played a few games online, with other sleep-deprived zombies, but I didn’t enjoy it as much as I did playing against my tablet. As of today I've won 80 out of 108 games, a success rate of 74.1 per cent. I was winning most of the games until I switched over to ‘Extremely Hard,’ the toughest level. So far my best word is ‘Untaxing’ that earned me a bingo and my best final score is 491. Is ‘Untaxing’ even a word? Whatever, I've added it to my Word dictionary.

Here then are the nine books I read over the past three months…

Thriller: Touch the Devil and The White House Connection by Jack Higgins

Splatterpunk: AN.AL—The Origins by Athul DeMarco

Mystery: The Rome Express by Arthur Griffiths and A Body in the Backyard by Elizabeth Spann Craig

Western: The Renos by Wolf Lundgren and A Noose for the Desperado by Clifton Adams

Humour: Beating Around the Bush by Art Buchwald

General: The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner

…and here are the twenty short stories.

Charles Allen Gramlich: Killing Trail, Showdown at Wild Briar, Powder Burn, and Once Upon a Time with the Dead, from Killing Trail

Ross Rocklynne: Sorry: Wrong Dimension

Philip K. Dick: The Father-Thing

Isaac Asimov: Rain, Rain, Go Away

Shirley Jackson: Charles and The Witch

Edith Nesbit: The Mystery of the Semi-Detached

Ernest Bramah: The End of the Beginning, In the Thick of It, and The Beginning of the End, from Smothered in Corpses

Dorothy Les Tina: Nice Corpses like Flowers

Evelyn Waugh: Edward of Unique Achievement, Fragments: They Dine with the Past, Conspiracy to Murder, Unacademic Exercise: A Nature Story, and The National Game, from The Complete Stories of Evelyn Waugh


Julia Greene: Whiffet Squirrel


There are no favourites. I liked all the books and short stories I read. They belonged to various genres and were written by gifted writers. Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury was a difficult read, like climbing the face of a mountain without gear.

So what do I take away from Q1? I’m back to reading contemporary authors. This time around I read Jack Higgins, Charles Allen Gramlich, Elizabeth Spann Craig, and India’s Athul DeMarco. The review of Charles’ Killing Trail is accompanied by an in-depth interview with the author. The only book I haven't reviewed is Elizabeth’s charming mystery A Body in the Backyard and that will happen soon.

I have a feeling Q2 will be better, in spite of the Android and I continuing to engage in a war of words over Scrabble.

April 7, 2014

Graveyard shift

Click to enlarge © Prashant C. Trikannad

I took this photograph of an old cemetery at 9.37 am on my way to the office. It is located a few blocks away, next to a crematorium. I look at it every morning as I descend from the railway bridge. It is tranquil and in bloom. There is no one about the place. Sometimes I'm tempted to go there and sit quietly with my eyes closed, walk among the burial beds, contemplate on life, read a scary book, write a ghost story, hear the birds calling out or listen to Thriller. The dead inspire too. Maybe, I'll wait until dark and see what happens.

April 3, 2014

Killing Trail by Charles Allen Gramlich, 2010

Review & Interview

Under a false dawn they dumped the girl in my yard.

Killing Trail by Charles Allen Gramlich, writer and professor from Louisiana, United States, is a collection of western short stories including a flash fiction piece, and much more. Each of the four stories is a traditional western about cowboys and desperadoes, vengeance and gunfights, courage and honour, land grab and pretty women.

If Lane Holland pursues the man who nearly raped and killed the woman he loved in ‘Killing Trail,’ the flagship story, Josh Allen Boone overcomes betrayal by a woman and fights back to clear his name of a murder he did not commit in ‘Showdown at Wild Briar.’ And if Davy Bonner narrowly escapes ambush and helps the lovely Megan Cross defend her ranch in ‘Powder Burn,’ a gang of fearless and dangerous outlaws take bullets but make the villagers bite the dust in ‘Once Upon a Time with the Dead,’ the flash fiction piece.

In the telling of these action-packed stories, Charles acknowledges the influence of Louis L’Amour, one of his favourite authors, whose characters—“alone and a bit lonely” and “who did what was right”—are reflected in his own. There is little description of the characters but you can picture what Holland, Boone, and Bonner would be like, through their brave deeds and moral soundness. And so quick is the narrative pace that you'd think Charles wrote the stories sitting in the saddle and riding on the trail to Wyoming.

Killing Trail comes in a package of goodies that has more than just these stories. For example, there is a first-person vignette ‘Quint Gives ‘em Hell’ from an unpublished novel that I liked very much, particularly how it ends. The character is influenced by L’Amour and tells about a showdown between two parties of cowboys on the range. It is a tale of great integrity. In the interview I have asked Charles why he did not include it in the main collection.

The surprise package also includes an appreciation of Louis L’Amour and an essay titled A Wild West of Your Own’ in which we are told about the fascinating history behind Fort Smith, Arkansas, and the eighty-six men who were hanged there, thanks to a particularly notorious judge known as the ‘Hanging Judge.’

Killing Trail is a western at its lucid and entertaining best. My only complain is that there are only three stories and the flash fiction piece. This collection deserved a few more. A Kindle edition of the book is available at Amazon. You can also read about the author’s other published works here.

Now, without further ado, I hand over this space to Charles…


‘The soul of the writing experience
for me is to tell myself stories’

Charles Allen Gramlich spoke to the 3Cs in an email interaction which is split into three parts: the book, the characters, and the author.

Photograph provided bv the author.

THE BOOK

Prashant C. Trikannad: Charles, you have dedicated Killing Trail to Louis L’Amour who made you love the west and inspired you to write westerns. Can you talk about L’Amour’s influence in your reading and writing of westerns and other fiction? 
Charles Allen Gramlich: I suspect there is always a certain amount of luck involved with how one writer becomes an influence on another. I was a voracious reader from early on, but because we lived out in the country I wasn’t able to get to the library very often. Fortunately, my brother-in-law, Roger James, was also a big reader. He lived within walking distance so I often went to his house to borrow books. He was a big L’Amour fan and had lots of his works. I read them and loved them. I wonder sometimes, though, about what would have happened if Roger had more Zane Grey or Max Brand books. Would I now be a bigger fan of those writers? For whatever reason, L’Amour was there when I needed him and his work resonated strongly with me—first as a reader, and later as a writer myself.

What are some of the L’Amour highpoints in this collection of short stories?
L’Amour wrote most often about characters who were alone and a little bit lonely. He wrote about characters who did what was right even when faced with heavy odds. Growing up on a farm located six miles from the nearest town, I could appreciate those feelings. The heroes in L’Amour’s novels are also hard workers, courageous, and respectful of others, but they aren’t willing to be pushed around. These are the same kind of values I was taught by my parents. L’Amour’s heroic characters also have a reverence for the land and its beauty, and this was something I felt as well. These are the kinds of things I tried to put into the stories in Killing Trail.

Which are your favourite novels by Louis L’Amour? Do you think he is popular among the new and younger generation of readers of westerns?
My favourite novel by L’Amour is To Tame a Land, about a young boy named Ryan Tyler growing to manhood in the west and becoming a lawman. I reread this book every couple of years. Some other favourites are The Man Called Noon, about a man who loses his memory, Flint, about a gunfighter who only has a few months to live, and The First Fast Draw, which is about the invention of the “fast draw” and the real life figure of Cullen Baker.

I don’t know how popular L’Amour is among younger folks. I’m sure he’s not as popular as he was to my generation, but L’Amour deals with timeless topics so I doubt he’ll ever disappear entirely.

While I read Killing Trail in two sittings and enjoyed it immensely, I wanted to read more adventures. Why did you stop at only four short stories? Can we expect a second edition with more number of stories?
I tend to be a slow writer, and there aren't a lot of markets for western short stories. I don’t typically write more than about ten to twelve stories a year, and most of those are intended for the much more numerous fantasy or horror markets. I love westerns, though, and over the years had accumulated a few stories. I decided to publish them now because if I waited to write a full book’s worth of tales it might be several more years before those were done. I’m currently working on a trilogy of western tales about a gunfighter named Gabriel. When those are done I’ll probably publish them first as an ebook, like with Killing Trail, but then will combine those stories and the Killing Trail tales into a print edition.

You have compared the fourth story, Once Upon a Time with the Dead, a flash fiction piece, to the Desperado movies. I also found shades of Clint Eastwood’s High Plains Drifter, albeit with a twist in the tale. Did that occur to you as well?
I actually didn’t think about the High Plains Drifter connection, but I can certainly see a similarity in setting, and even in the revelation of who the ‘Drifter’ really is. It hadn't occurred to me before but I have seen High Plains Drifter many times so I bet there is some influence there. Good observation on your part.

Charles, I liked all the stories but I liked the first-person vignette ‘Quint Gives ‘em Hell’ from your unpublished novel even more. Did you think of expanding it and including it in the collection?
As you mentioned, that’s a piece from an unpublished novel. It’s from the first book I ever wrote. Several years back I sat down to reread that old novel and see if I could polish it up for publication. Unfortunately, there were so many things wrong with the book that I realised it would be easier just to write a new novel than to fix the old one. That doesn’t mean I might not turn sections of it into stories. That’s what I did with the title piece from the collection. The story ‘Killing Trail’ is a revised scene from that novel with a new beginning and an ending added to it. The same could happen for ‘Quint Gives ‘em Hell.’ In fact, now you've got me thinking!

How and when did you think of adding the historical essay titled ‘A Wild West of Your Own’ about Fort SmithArkansas, and the eighty-six hangings that took place within its walls in the second-half of the 19th century? 
Even though I grew up about thirty miles from Fort Smith, I never knew until my late teens that it had been as wild and wooly as the boomtowns of the west I’d read about in L’Amour’s books. My first introduction was when Roger James started telling me about Isaac Parker, the ‘Hanging Judge.’ Roger loaned me a book called Winding Stair, which was set in the Fort Smith area and was written by Douglas C. Jones, who grew up in Arkansas. I never thought to write up any of my impressions of Fort Smith, though, until Richard Prosch (http://archive.is/qiZfE) asked me to do so for a feature on his blog called ‘My Personal West.’ I thought the piece fit nicely in the Killing Trail collection.

THE CHARACTERS

The initial three stories are essentially about revenge, as three young men set out to avenge the wrong done to them and to those they loved. As a leitmotif in westerns, do you think it’ll ever lose its relevance?
I think revenge is a motive/emotion that everyone understands. It’s as old as “An Eye for an Eye.” Also, at their heart the best revenge stories are really about justice. Someone has been wronged and there is no one but the hero to make it right. I value a “fair” world but the real world is seldom fair. At least in fiction we can see that justice is done. I personally tend to enjoy revenge stories, although I don’t want the person taking revenge to become as bad as those he or she is seeking to punish. That takes us into anti-hero territory. Revenge is certainly a very old trope, and one that has been featured in many other genres besides westerns. I don’t think it’ll die out as a theme anytime soon.

Were there any outside influences to the three characters of Lane Holland, Josh Allen Boone, and Davy Bonner?
There were. The character of Lane Holland is probably closest to my own personality, although I was never so tough or competent. The original version of that story was written when I was barely eighteen so I put a lot of myself into it. My son, Josh Allen Gramlich, is actually the model for Josh Allen Boone, although as far as I know my Josh has never had quite such an adventure. The story came about from imagining my son in those circumstances. Davy is different. I certainly wasn’t much like him when I was young. Davy is much more extraverted and socially adept. I always admired people like that so I imagine there’s some “wish fulfillment” going on in that story.

Who are some of your favourite characters in western novels?
Wow, there are so many. I loved the whole ‘Sackett’ thing that L'Amour did, where he wrote stories about a bunch of different members of his fictional Sackett family. He sort of told the grand story of the west through their eyes. Ed Gorman has a series of books about a great character named Guild. Guild is an older man, more mature than most of L’Amour’s heroes or the characters in Killing Trail. As I've gotten older myself I've come to appreciate those types. Will Henry created a great character named John Clayton, who appeared in his very fine book called No Survivors. Clayton was a Confederate soldier who was later adopted into an Indian tribe. He was present at the battle of Little Big Horn. Robert B. Parker created two great western characters named Virgil Cole and Everett Hitch for his excellent trilogy, AppaloosaResolution and Brimstone. Another favourite character is Judge Earl Stark (Stark’s JusticeThe Hawthorne Legacy, etc.), created by James Reasoner (www.jamesreasoner.net). My favourite historical western character would have to be Cole Younger, with Doc Holliday a close second.

THE AUTHOR

Charles, what does writing mean to you? How would you describe the experience of writing?
As long as I can remember I've relied on my imagination to entertain me. I’m never bored because I can always disappear into daydreams of adventure. Long before I started writing I simply “told” myself stories. As I got older and the stories got more complex, I found that I needed to record elements of them in order to keep them straight. Before I ever wrote an actual short story, I printed up lists of characters and the names of cities and planets that I invented. I first began putting stories on paper to capture them for myself, so that I could enjoy them again and again. It eventually occurred to me that others might enjoy such stories as well, and I began writing more for publication.

The soul of the writing experience for me, though, is to tell myself stories. The greatest experience in that process is “discovery.”  Every day when I’m writing I discover new characters, new settings, new creatures, and new adventures. It’s the closest thing to pure creativity that humans can experience, and I sure do enjoy it.

Can you take us through your fiction and nonfiction books? Can we expect more westerns from you?
I love to write in all different kinds of genres. My first novel was a thriller with horror and SF elements called Cold in the Light. It’s still the most complicated book I've ever written, plot-wise. Then I wrote the Talera fantasy Trilogy, Swords of TaleraWings Over Talera, and Witch of Talera. These would fall into a category called Sword & Planet fiction, which was first established by Edgar Rice Burroughs with his John Carter of Mars tales. A fourth book in that series, Wraith of Talera, is planned for publication this year, and there will be at least one more in the series, to be called Gods of Talera. I’m about a third of the way through that one. I've also written a Space Opera novella in the tradition of C.L. Moore and Leigh Brackett, which is called Under the Ember Star. I had a lot of fun with that one.

Besides the novels, I have three collections of short stories out from Borgo Press, now an imprint of Wildside. These are Bitter Steel, which is a collection of heroic fantasy stories in the tradition of Robert E. Howard. Then there’s Midnight in Rosary, a collection of vampire and werewolf tales, with a ghost story thrown in. I always warn readers that there is a lot of sex in that anthology. Finally, there’s In the Language of Scorpions, which is a collection of horror stories, ranging from the super gory to Twilight Zone type twist-ending tales. Some of the stories in ‘Scorpions’ were written during the Splatter Punk movement of the late 1980s and early 1990s. Those tales are very graphic, which was an element of that movement. I consider the primary splatter punk stories in that collection to be, ‘Razor White,’ ‘Splatter of Black,’ and ‘Wall of Love.’ They are brutal and not for the faint of heart.

As for nonfiction, I have Write With Fire, which collects most of my pieces on writing up until about 2009. I did a number of articles over the years for various writing magazines, and produced a regular column on writing for several years for an online newsletter called The Illuminata. A lot of these are ‘how to’ articles. I also collaborated on a textbook called Writing in Psychology with a couple of colleagues. We use it in our departmental writing course.

For the future, I'm working on the fifth Talera novel now, which will close out the original series. One way or another, I'll be writing a novel length western in the next year or so. I've got a lot of ideas and titles percolating in my head right now and am itching to get started.

How different is writing a western from your other interests like horror, science fiction, and fantasy? Which of these do you enjoy writing the most?
I’ve realised in the past five years or so that I’m first and foremost an “adventure” writer. Adventure is at the core of all my westerns, science fiction, and fantasy. They have many elements in common. Readers have told me that you can certainly see “western” elements in my Talera series, and I think they are present in Under the Ember Star as well. My horror fiction is a bit different. Cold in the Light is adventure horror, but many of my short horror stories are not. Much of the material from In the Language of Scorpions might be called “existential horror,” which is horror that arises out of the human experience of a hostile universe. In adventure fiction, good usually triumphs over evil. In existential horror, good usually loses because it is simply overwhelmed by forces that no human could possibly defeat. The “enemy” in existential horror is often not even evil in the usual human sense. It is simply indifferent to humanity. Lovecraft is often described as writing existential horror, but the category as a whole is far broader than that.

Can you briefly take us through your writing process for both short stories and novels? Which of the two is more satisfying?
Short stories start with me from several different places. A title or scene may pop into my head—or even a single evocative phrase. For example, the following sentence occurred to me years ago on my commute: “She had the lips that Satan dreamed of in his long fall to hell.” That phrase then turned into a story called ‘Thief of Eyes.’ Once an idea takes hold, I usually type out a quick rough draft of the piece, which then goes through multiple revisions until I’m finally satisfied with it. The first ending I come up with is usually discarded in favor of something that twists the tale more dramatically.

While stories often come to me by accident, novels start with intent. I decide I’m going to write a novel and then spend quite a bit of pre-writing work figuring out the main characters, settings, and opening scenes. By the time I’m ready to go I know the beginning and have a good idea of the general ending. Then I write my way toward that ending. Often, the ending does get modified as I move along through the book.

For me, short stories are generally a lot more fun. Because I’m a relatively slow writer, I can finish a short story in a reasonable amount of time and see the fruits of my labour. Novels are not only longer, but much more complicated. The process of putting words on paper isn’t harder for novels, but they take a lot more planning. Except for Swords of Talera, I've never written a novel where I didn’t get the feeling somewhere in the middle that it just wasn’t going to work. Most other writers say they experience the same thing and you just have to push on through. That’s certainly what I've found.

To summarise it, when I finish a short story I’m usually exhilarated; when I finish a novel I’m usually exhausted.

Despite that, there are some tales that just can't be told as short stories. I do like writing novels because of the greater scope they allow you. I know I'm going to suffer for that scope, though.

What kind of books do you read, in what categories, and who are some of your favourite writers?
I read just about everything, although westerns, fantasy, and horror make up the greatest part of what I consume for pleasure. I also read a lot of nonfiction, mostly science related. I try to read about 100 books a year and there is always so much more I miss out on. Over my entire lifetime, my favourite fiction writers would have to be Louis L’Amour, Ray Bradbury, Robert E. Howard, Edgar Rice Burroughs, and John D. MacDonald. Closely behind these would be C.L. Moore, Leigh Brackett, and Kenneth Bulmer. In the last fifteen years, I've been reading a lot of Joe Lansdale, James Reasoner, O’Neil De Noux, David Gemmell, Dean Koontz and C.S. Harris. If I look up on my shelves, I also see a lot of books by David C. Smith, Sidney Williams, Will Henry, Andre Norton, and E.C. Tubb. I’m sure there are many more I’m forgetting. In the last two years I've been reading quite a bit of stuff by Bernard Lee DeLeo, and by the Beat to a Pulp writers.

Thank you, Charles.

April 1, 2014

The Entity, 1982

Check out Todd Mason’s blog Sweet Freedom for this Tuesday’s Overlooked Films, Audio & Video. My contribution is a slightly expanded version of a general post on horror movies I wrote two years ago.

The Entity was one of seven horror movies I watched on VCR in my mid-teens. The others were The Omen and Friday the 13th trilogies, The Evil Dead, A Nightmare on Elm Street, The Exorcist, and An American Werewolf in London. I saw them all in a span of one week between 10 pm and 4 am. I can't think of any other period in my life when I was as scared as I was during that one week. I was glad I saw the horror flicks with many of my family members.

Since then and up to now I must have seen about a dozen horror movies, the last of which was The Amityville Horror (2005) starring Ryan Reynolds and Melissa George. I'm looking for an opportunity to see the 1979 version that has James Brolin and Margot Kidder in the lead. It ought to be better.

The Entity's most frightening appeal lies in the absence of an entity, unlike in The Exorcist. There is something eerie about horror films without graphic apparitions in plain sight. The other attraction is the background music, slow and haunting, that makes you feel as if someone or something is about to reach out and touch you.

Directed by Sidney J. Furie (Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, 1987), The Entity was well received in India because of its unusual supernatural theme and, I suspect, on account of a young Barbara Hershey. I remember many of the scenes from the movie, particularly how her character Carla Moran's sexual molestation by an invisible spirit begins and ends. One evening Carla, a single mother, is sitting at the dressing table when she is slapped by a mysterious hand and thrown on the bed and raped by no one. What follows is a period of mental and physical agony as Carla tries to convince people of what is happening to her. The film ends with Carla daring the evil spirit to do what it wants followed by the door shutting itself, suggesting that the phantom rapist finally leaves her alone…maybe.

"All right. All right, bastard. I've finished running. So do what you want. Take your time, buddy. Take your time. Really, I'm thankful for the, uh...rest. I'm so... tired of being scared. So it's all right, it really is, it's all right. You can, uh, do anything you want to me, you can, uh, torture me, kill me, anything. But you can't have me. You cannot touch me."

I've never bought the theory that The Entity was based on a true story.

Do you have any good, or bad, memories of horror movies?

March 27, 2014

Reading Habits #7: How do you treat your books?

© Prashant C. Trikannad

“My spine is hurting,” the paperback said from the bed. “I think I may have torn something.”

“A page or two, perhaps," said the hardback sandwiched between a Dostoyevsky and a George Eliot on the bookshelf. "What happened?"

“Slept badly, I guess.”

“Wide open and face up, or down?” the hardback inquired politely.

“Wide open and face down. That’s the third night in a row I've been mishandled. This morning I heard the birds singing outside the window and when I opened my eyes I couldn't see a thing. It was pitch black. I panicked. I thought I’d gone blind. And then, suddenly, there was a dazzling light. I saw that the housemaid had lifted the pillow.”

“So you spent the night under a pillow.”

“Yes, I did. To be honest with you, I actually liked it. It was cozy and warm. The pillow was white, clean, and smelled of lilies.

“Lilies?” the hardback raised his eyebrows. “Who did you say you were?”

“I never said who I was. Anyway, since you are asking now, the name’s Scruffy. And you are?

“The Mapmaker. I belong to Frank G. Slaughter,” the hardback said. “Why lilies?”

“Oh, I don't know, I like flowers.”

The hardback straightened up. “I know who you are. You are Paul Gallico’s, aren't you? The same fellow whose Poseidon Adventure short-changed you.”

“He did not short-change me!” the paperback said, indignantly. “I came way before Poseidon. Had it not been for the movie…”

“Are you feeling better?” The Mapmaker, who was also a peacemaker, quickly changed the topic.

“Why, what’s wrong with me?”

“You said your back was hurting.”

“Oh yes, I did, and it’s still hurting and that’s because I was lying open and spreadeagled all night. It’s easy for you stiff-backs. Look at Fyodor next to you, straight as a ramrod.”

The Mapmaker was about to say something nasty but let it pass. Instead, he said quietly, “Who’s reading you, Scruffy?”

“Some college kid who doesn't know how to read me or treat me. You’re fortunate his mother is reading you. She cares for you, doesn't she?”

“She certainly does, like she cares for her plants, her cats, her children, and her husband. So how does this kid treat you?”

“Well, last night and the night before and the night before that I was flopped over his sweaty and smelly face for like an hour, maybe more, and then he picked me up and shoved me under his pillow.”

“The same pillow that smells like lilies?”

“The same pillow. Thank god, the housemaid changes the cover every morning.”

“How much has he read of you?”

“Seventeen pages! Can you believe it? I’m only 288 and I’m very funny and he’s been at me for two weeks. Why doesn't the kid just give up on me?,” Scruffy wailed.

“Scruffy, 288 is a lot for a kid who hasn't read much. I mean, you're not the best or easiest of reads.”

“And I suppose you are, Mr. Mapmaker, with your navigational nose for latitudes and longitudes,” he snarled.

“Scruffy, I’m more than latitudes and…”

“That’s not all,” Scruffy cut in rudely. “Look at me, I’m torn, I’m dog-eared, I've been nibbled at, I’m shapeless, I've been scribbled all over, and I feel like I've been dipped in ketchup. This is NO WAY to treat a book or read a book,” he shouted hysterically. 'Tell me, Mr. Navigator, would you treat your maps like this?


“I'm not just a navigator,” the Mapmaker hissed under his breath. He stared at Scruffy and muttered to himself, “Why am I talking to a monkey?” He folded up his jackets, rested his head against Eliot's shoulder, and closed his eyes.


Note: For previous Reading Habits, see under Labels.

March 25, 2014

Minuscule, 2006

A little known (or so I think) French animation series for Overlooked Films, Audio & Video at Todd Mason’s blog Sweet Freedom.


After a hiatus of a couple of years, I returned to the cartoon channels. For the past few days I've been watching Ultimate Spider-Man, the American animation series on Disney XD, and Minuscule, a French animation series on the private and delightful life of insects, on Nick Jr.

I've only seen three episodes of Minuscule and I loved it, mainly because there are no humans (though they appear on the periphery) and no dialogues. Just a bunch of colourful insects whose insignificant and mundane existence is occasionally roused by situations often beyond their control.

The insects are anthropomorphic. They display human characteristics through behaviour, intelligence, and quick thinking. They have big eyes but no expressions. You can sense their emotions that vary from being happy to being sad and from being brave to being scared, though it all comes out in their actions. That’s how I saw it.

In one episode, a farmer is driving his tractor toward an anthill. The ants are terrified. A ladybug, one of the main characters, comes to the rescue. She does what a human would do: she yanks out the tube from the engine and stops the tractor. The farmer climbs down and goes off to find help. The ladybug then refits the tube, turns on the ignition, puts the tractor into reverse gear, and sends it off backward.

In another episode, a centipede is delighted to find a packet of chips left by a picnicker but is soon disappointed when a couple of wasps dive in like fighter jets, with sound effects and all, and make off with the packet. The ladybug, who is watching from a tree, chases the wasps and in a brief tug of war in the skies succeeds in retrieving it for the arthropod. Together, they sit on a rock and nibble at the chips.

Each colourful episode is very short and usually features no more than one or two insects, most commonly ladybugs, grasshoppers, flies, ants, spiders, and snails. Other not so regular insects include mosquitoes, butterflies, caterpillars, dung beetles, dragonflies, cicadas, bees, and wasps. 


There are friends and foes among the tiny creatures. The setting is rural France and very scenic. A piece on Wikipedia describes the French animation series as giving "a bird's eye view of insects' day to day existence, distorted through a burlesque, yet poetic lens."

If Minuscule has a moral behind it, then it is about mutual dependence; and big or small, size has nothing to do with it. I've only seen three episodes, so obviously there’s a lot more to this series, running since 2006. I believe there is a full-length movie too. If you like anthropomorphic serials like Shaun the Sheep, then you’ll enjoy Minuscule whose tiny characters are creepy but cute…well, sort of.

Highly recommended.

March 20, 2014

The science fiction of Evan Hunter

I forgot March 21 was Ed McBain Day at Friday’s Forgotten Books over at Patti Abbott’s blog Pattinase. Since it was too late to read and review any of the dozen mothballed 87th Precinct mysteries in my office cabinet (where I keep them), I decided to turn the spotlight on the genre that launched the writing career of Evan Hunter, the real face behind McBain.

Man will someday leave the Earth. No one witnessing the marvels of today's science can really seriously doubt this mild premise. As certain as Man learned to cross the seas, as certain as he learned to build wings with which he left the ground, he will leave the Earth for Space.

The question then is not, "Will he?"

It is, "When will he?"
— From the preface to Rocket to Luna, 1953, by Evan Hunter


Eight years later, in 1961, Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin answered Evan Hunter’s question by becoming the first human to go into outer space.

© Wikimedia Commons
The American author and screenwriter, it'd seem, wrote science fiction well before he wrote crime fiction, most notably his 87th Precinct series. He penned some two dozen sf stories and at least four sf novels. I confess to not having read any.

In 1951, Hunter wrote his first sf story Welcome Martians under his birth name Salvatore Albert Lombino. The following year he published his first sf novel Find the Feathered Serpent. He wrote sf until 1956, under a cavalcade of names like S.A. Lombino, Richard Marsten, D.A. Addams, Ted Taine, and Evan Hunter too.

In 1956, he penned his first 87th Precinct mystery, Cop Hater, where he used the name of Ed McBain. For the next fifty years, he backed it up by nearly sixty books in the series. It was to become one of the most famous pseudonyms ever.


On March 19, I discovered two of his four sf novels online—Find the Feathered Serpent by Evan Hunter and Rocket to Luna by Richard Marsten—at Archive.org. Click here and it’s yours. 

The two novels are published by John C. Winston Company of Philadelphia and Toronto. Find the Feathered Serpent was Hunter’s first novel, sf or otherwise, and he dedicated it to his wife Anita. A year later, he wrote Rocket to Luna, dedicated to all his sons. 

I liked the Winston Company's sf logo. Between 1952 and 1961, Winston published "35 science fiction juvenile novels" by famous authors that included Hunter. The covers were illustrated by artists such as Ed Emshwiller, Virgil Finlay, Mel Hunter, and Alex Schomburg. Of these, I'm only familiar with Finlay having written about him in 2012.

As I've not read either of the two novels, I cannot comment on them. But, here’s what the publisher has to say about the author and why he wrote them.

“Evan Hunter's varied background probably helped him devise the varied cast of characters—ancient Mayan citizens, bold Vikings and twentieth-century explorers—people who Find the Feathered Serpent. For this author, at one time or another, has been an English teacher, telephone dispatcher, lobster salesman, and now occupies an editor's chair. A graduate of Hunter College, he also served with the military during World War II in Cuba, Hawaii, and Japan. Though Evan Hunter found study of the ancient Maya hieroglyphics the most fascinating bit of research necessary to write Find the Feathered Serpent, he prefers the more usual forms of relaxation of piano-playing and sketching.
Find the Feathered Serpent

“Richard Marsten doesn't call any one part of the country "home." This author's wanderlust has led him to every corner of the United States, and he intends to see Canada, Mexico, Europe, Asia and Africa before settling down. After that, he hopes to be among the first to apply for passage to the Moon—a probability beyond dispute, as far as the author is concerned. The three-stage rocket that Mr. Marsten writes about in Rocket to Luna was discussed with his boyhood friends during bygone Fourth of July celebrations. Plans had even been made to equip a tin can with firecrackers to test the theory. But the youngsters never got around to it, and it wasn't until the author started investigating recent scientific advances for background material for Rocket to Luna that he realized how near the truth he had been twenty or so years ago.”
Rocket to Luna


At the start of his writing career, Evan Hunter worked with authors such as Arthur C. Clarke, P.G. Wodehouse, and Richard S. Prather. In his acknowledgements for Rocket to Luna, Hunter, or Richard Marsten, says, “My thanks, too, to Arthur C. Clarke, who graciously answered several tricky questions about the Moon.”

I’m hoping sf veterans like Todd Mason at Sweet Freedom and Bill Crider at Pop Culture Magazine will shed more light on Evan Hunter’s science fiction. In fact, writer Bill Crider has written about Find the Feathered Serpent more than once on his blog (click on the above link).



This illustration appears in both the novels.

March 18, 2014

Touch the Devil and The White House Connection by Jack Higgins

I've slowed down on blogging so that I can read more and post less. Doesn't that sound like music to the ears? Well, this is in terms of my own posts and not my visits to other blogs. A direct beneficiary of this slack in blogging, at least in recent days, has been Jack Higgins, the British novelist whose real name is Harry Patterson. I read two of his thrillers—Touch the Devil (1982) and The White House Connection (1998)—back to back. Regular visitors to the 3Cs will know that I rate Higgins very highly and he remains one of my favourite writers.

Higgins is the author of sixty-plus thrillers including his most famous The Eagle Has Landed (1975), which is about Himmler's audacious plot to kidnap Churchill on English soil during World War II. However, instead of writing about Higgins and his fiction, which are already well known, I'll talk about three of his many unforgettable heroes in the context of the two novels I read.


The three characters are Liam Devlin, Sean Dillion, and Martin Brosnan. They appear in many novels; Dillon figures in as many as twenty. All of them have several things in common: Irish lineage, legend, idealist, wealthy, romantic, poet, scholar, philosopher, ruthless yet kind, a love for Bushmills, rebel, crack shot, and ex-IRA gunman. They once believed in the cause, a united Ireland, but became disillusioned after the Irish terrorists resorted to savagery and bombing. They are not cold-blooded killers and the one thing that is anathema to them is killing innocent people, particularly women and children.

They wear their hearts on their sleeve. They often leave behind a calling card, a rose, to convey a chilling message that seems to say, “I got this far and I could have killed you, but I didn't because I like peace more.” In Touch the Devil, for instance, Martin Brosnan, who is also a Vietnam War veteran, wants to hold someone accountable for all that he has been through. As he says, “Where does it stop? Somebody has to pay, Liam. I’m tired of being used for other people’s purposes…” He decides to go straight to the top, to the nameless British Prime Minister. Disguised as a waiter at a Christmas party in 10, Downing Street, Brosnan makes his way to her office, with a bottle of champagne and two glasses, but then walks away without firing a bullet or saying a word. He leaves a rose on the tray. The Iron Lady looks up and realises how close to death she really was. Brosnan’s is a desperate cry for redemption.

Skilled in guerilla warfare and secret operations, their services are available to anyone, at times for a price; including, in the case of Liam Devlin, Gestapo chief Himmler in The Eagle Has Landed, and to British Intelligence, often reluctantly. But, they won’t go beyond a point. They have no hopes of a normal existence. Their past is violent, their present uncertain, and their future obscure. Haunted by the IRA and hounded by British Intelligence, Higgins best describes his self-righteous and notoriously famous heroes as “dead man walking.” 

So legendary are Liam Devlin, Sean Dillon, and Martin Brosnan that they evoke awe wherever they go, in England or Ireland, among compatriots and veterans of the IRA. They are often received with exclamations of “Dear God!” or “Christ Jesus!” by old acquaintances. Higgins portrays them as hopeless romantics in their relations with lovely and sensible women whom they address softly as “Girl, dear.” It must be an Irish thing.

Most of their stories are narrated in the backdrop of the IRA and its fight against British rule in Northern Ireland. This is because Jack Higgins was born in England and raised in Belfast amid religious and political upheavals of the time. His formative years may have influenced his writing. He gives the impression of being sympathetic towards the IRA but he doesn't make them look good as much as he makes the rogue elements within the organisation look bad.

One such rogue element is the Sons of Erin, a splinter outfit of the IRA responsible for some of the worst crimes against the British, its army and its special forces. The secret organisation is made up of rich and influential members with Irish connections, including a gangster and a US senator, and is led by IRA renegade Jack Barry in The White House Connection and Frank Barry in Touch the Devil, both one and the same person. Sean Dillon in the first novel and Devlin and Brosnan in the second are “hired” by Brigadier Charles Ferguson, the powerful head of an elite and secret British security service known as Group 4, to track down Barry and eliminate him. Ferguson, whose description reminds me of actor Ernest Borgnine, reports only to the Prime Minister. He is utterly ruthless when it comes to protecting his country, even if it means using blatant lies, coercive tactics, and emotional blackmail to get the three IRA gunmen to “work” for him. For Ferguson, the end justifies the means, but he is not unkind. 

Liam Devlin is by far the most popular of Jack Higgins’ characters, appearing in about half a dozen books. I’ve never understood why Higgins didn’t give him more thrilling adventures. He is like the wise old sage, admired and respected by his protégés like Martin Brosnan and feared by his enemies. At 60, he is still fast with a gun. Post-IRA, he is a professor of English Literature at Trinity College in Dublin. 

Apart from Dillon and Brosnan there is Martin Fallon, another IRA hitman who wants out but can’t get out. They all have their own series, as do Higgins’ many other inimitable characters.

Jack Higgins often tells improbable stories where mercenaries like Sean Dillon have easy access to the American President in The White House Connection and Martin Brosnan enters 10, Downing Street without a hitch in Touch the Devil. His novels lack the brutal reality of a John le Carré, the technical brilliance of a Tom Clancy, or the researched narrative of a Frederick Forsyth. But Higgins more than makes up for the deficit by telling uncomplicated stories through some very memorable characters of espionage fiction. Characters who have "the Devil on their side," as Higgins tells you.



Previous reviews of Jack Higgins novels

October 9, 2013 - Hell Is Too Crowded, 1962
May 20, 2013 - The Iron Tiger, 1966
August 10, 2012 - A Prayer for the Dying, 1973
June 7, 2012 - A Fine Night for Dying, 1969
October 11, 2011 - The Keys of Hell, 1965
May 14, 2011 - Storm Warning, 1976