Hard Cases and Other Mysterious Volumes

The books and movies are stacking up again. Review copies, stuff I meant to mention in previous columns and forgot, unexpected finds out in the wild. Here is where your humble correspondent attempts to clear the backlog. Capsule reviews, short and to the point. (I hope.) Okay? Here we go…

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Forgotten Grafton: In writing about Sue Grafton a couple of weeks back, I inexcusably forgot to mention one of my favorite projects of hers.

Writing Mysteries is not for everyone, but for those of us interested in process and behind-the-scenes anecdotes, it’s endlessly interesting. It’s published by Writer’s Digest, which admittedly specializes in useless volumes full of obvious advice designed to separate beginning writers from their cash, but I bet on Ms. Grafton’s involvement making this a worthwhile investment. (In fairness, that investment was two dollars at a garage sale for a pristine hardcover, but still….) It was a good bet. The roster of contributors is a who’s who of the business: Edward Hoch on the short story, Faye and Jonathan Kellerman on the necessity of research, Michael Connelly on characterization, and dozens of others. One of the things I love about this book it its utter lack of snobbery– there are entries from Warren Murphy, co-creator of the seventies spinner-rack mainstay Remo Williams, and from true-crime scandal queen Ann Rule.

Sadly missing is any real essay from Sue Grafton herself, but her introduction is close enough that you don’t feel the omission too badly. Hugely recommended for anyone with any interest in the genre.

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Hard Cases, Comics and Otherwise: I was surprised and pleased to discover on my last visit there that my comics retailer had pulled the Hard Case comic Quarry’s War for me, just because he figured I’d like it.

And you know what? He was right. Quarry is about my favorite Max Collins series anyway, even over Ms. Tree (although that runs a very close second.)

I had wondered how Quarry would work in comics form ever since the project was announced; a great deal of the appeal of the novels rests with Quarry’s narrative voice, the hard-as-nails, pragmatic, amoral hitman that he has become.

Quarry’s War is taking its cue from the Cinemax series, which was set during the early seventies, when Quarry had just come home from the Vietnam War. The narrative alternates between a wartime reminiscence and Quarry’s fourth assignment for the mysterious Broker, so each story neatly bookends the period covered by the television version. The comic literally alternates pages between the two stories, a device that took a little getting used to. But it works well enough, and once you get into the groove it is pretty seamless; and I have to admire the cleverness of the device. It could only be done this way in a comic. The art from Szymon Kudranski is the same solid no-frills narrative storytelling style of comics that Terry Beatty brought to Ms. Tree, which makes me wonder if this is something Collins called out for in his script or just a demonstration that Charles Ardai is a smart editor… not that those things are mutually exclusive. Anyway, it’s a cool addition to the Quarry series and adds some genuine;y interesting backstory to the character. I probably will skip the remaining single issues and get the collected paperback edition instead, but it definitely will be part of the library here.

Hard Case also sent me its latest prose releases a week ago and I am just purely enjoying the hell out of them.

The Last Stand by Mickey Spillane is really two short novels in one volume; the first is a very early piece, “A Bullet For Satisfaction,” a tale of a rogue cop out for revenge that looks like an early draft of what would later become refined into Mike Hammer. And like the early Hammer books, it’s almost gleefully transgressive in its brutality; not even other pulp writers of the time took the violence as far as Spillane did back then. The second story, “The Last Stand,” is an interesting departure, a story of a pilot stranded in the desert that inadvertently gets embroiled in a power struggle between the authorities and the local Native tribe over a missing treasure. In some ways it’s more like something Clive Cussler would have dreamed up; but the prose is the same raw, hard-boiled Spillane as any of the Hammers. Tremendous fun. And there’s a great introduction from Max Allan Collins on how these previously-unpublished manuscripts came to light.

Donald Westlake’s Help! I Am being Held Prisoner is a reprint of a lost classic from the seventies.

This is the kind of humorous caper story that was Westlake’s specialty and I thought it was even funnier than the more well-known Dortmunder novels. I pretty much like everything Hard Case puts out that I’ve seen, but the Westlake and Collins/Spillane books they’ve been doing are far and away the ones I like the most.

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Finally! Longstreet, probably my favorite of the seventies gimmick-detective era on television (you know, Cannon was fat, Barnaby Jones was old, Ironside was in a wheelchair, etc.) is now available on home video.

Legitimately, that is. The Bruce Lee episodes have been a bootlegger’s evergreen, and you can find the first one, “Way of the Intercepting fist,” on YouTube.

But the rest of the series was brilliant too. As far as I’m concerned, blind detective Mike Longstreet was Daredevil for television long before Charlie Cox ever took a swing at it. And I always have thought Gene Colan’s visualization of Matt Murdock owed something to Longstreet, though the timetable’s all wrong. They really are peas in a pod though.

Best of all, a great many of these are new to me– I only found the show a few weeks before it was canceled, back in the day, and it didn’t last long enough to get syndicated anywhere. Sometimes when you finally get to revisit a childhood favorite, it’s not as good as you remember— but Longstreet is actually better than I remember. It’s a damn shame it didn’t last, but at least we have it out there now. Check it out if you get a chance.

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Sherlockiana: It’s damn near impossible to list all the different times someone has tried to put Sherlock Holmes on film (though there have been some heroic efforts to do so) which makes trying to look up a particular one a bit of a challenge if you don’t know the specifics. I had this vague memory of a couple of Holmes adaptations that I liked quite a bit back in the early eighties, they seemed like they were in pretty heavy rotation on cable. Not HBO, but Showtime or Starz or something. Sign of Four and Hound of the Baskervilles. That much I remembered, but– for reasons I will spare you– my recollections of that time are hazy, and I couldn’t remember any of the specifics, not even the name of the actor playing Holmes.

Well, I finally found them. The actor was Ian Richardson, and the two films were actually the first two of a projected six produced by Sy Weintraub for the BBC.

The project was scuttled when Grenada showed up with the Jeremy Brett/David Burke version, and the quarrel ended up in court. (This was in 1983, before Holmes was in the public domain; the Conan Doyle estate had apparently lost track of who had the right to make Holmes movies.) Grenada settled with Weintraub and went on to great success with their Jeremy Brett Sherlock Holmes series, and deservedly so.

But Richardson’s version is good too. Another re-discovery that’s better than I remembered. His Holmes is a bit more manic and humorous than Brett’s, but well within the boundaries of what I’d consider authentic.

Came across The Sign of Four at a library sale and scooped it up. It’s my favorite Holmes story and I am happy to have it here as part of the library. You can find it on Amazon here for not very much money at all. I might have to go looking for the Richardson Baskervilles, as well, despite having something like six or eight versions of that story here already.

…what? I like The Hound of the Baskervilles, okay?

Incidentally, it’s worth noting that Ian Richardson went on to play Dr. Joseph Bell, the man Doyle always said was the real-life inspiration for Sherlock Holmes, in another terrific BBC series decades later.

That’s very much recommended as well.

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Well, that’s a dent in the review pile, anyway. Talk amongst yourselves. I’ll be back next week with something cool.

7 Comments

  1. Jeff Nettleton

    Love Ian Richardson in anything. I caught the first Dr Bell and Mr Doyle and loved it. Very much plays on your Sherlock expectations; but, lets it be its own thing.

    I’ve been meaning to read Westlake’s Dortmunder stuff, after watching Hot Rock; I’ll have to add Help… to the list.

  2. And looking at those stills of James Franciscus in LONGSTREET, I’m convinced that they inspired some DAREDEVIL presentation pieces that John Romita Sr. & Doug Wildey did for Marvel Animation in the early 80s. They feature a very Franciscus-looking Matt Murdock, with a seeing-eye dog who helped out DD as “Lightning, the Super-Dog.”

    More info here: http://marvel1980s.blogspot.com/2012/10/1985-concept-art-from-daredevil.html

  3. Help I Am Being Held Prisoner is hysterical–I read it years ago.
    I have a vague idea I saw those Ian Richardsons but I’ll have to look for them again some time.
    I remember Longstreet fondly, though I don’t think gimmick detectives ever really go out of fashion, the numbers just shrink of grow. Case in point Lincoln Rhyme, the paralyzed-but-brilliant detective of the series that started with The Bone Collector (didn’t care for it much myself).

  4. fit2print

    Speaking of Ms Tree, does anyone happen to know of any plans to reprint this series in hardcover or trade… at loooong last?

    I may be wrong, but I don’t think it has been in print since its original publication way back in the dark days of the 80s. Why this is, given that the series is so highly regarded, is beyond me.

    Ms Tree is just one of those titles — along with Steranko’s fabled (to me, at least) Chandler/Red Tide — that I’ve been dying to read for… let’s see… coming up on forever.

    Crime-noir publishers, I respectfully request that you get on the case!

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