Hatcher’s Junk Drawer #4: Welcome Distractions

Truthfully, we have had a lot going on here lately; car troubles, work stuff, medical stuff. Really, it’s been like the joke John Fugelsang tells — “We went camping and sitting around the fire that night, the kids wanted a horror story. So I described adulthood.”

Yeah, that whole being a grown-up thing is a giant time-suck. Ergo, I haven’t had much time to read books or watch movies, let alone write about them afterward. But here are a few things I was able to distract myself with over the last couple of weeks.

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Hard Cases! Hard Case Crime continues to send me cool books and I continue to enjoy them pretty much unreservedly. Their mission statement is twofold– to reprint ‘lost’ classic crime fiction, and to continue that hard-boiled tradition with new, original novels. Today we have one of each.

The first is another Cool and Lam novel from Erle Stanley Gardner, long out of print: Turn On The Heat.

Perry Mason tends to overshadow everything else Erle Stanley Gardner did. But he was the hell of a pulp writer back in the day and had several different successful series apart from Mason, ranging from the adventures of tough D.A. Doug Selby to his stories about masked outlaw the Patent-Leather Kid. The ones featuring private eye Bertha Cool and her assistant Donald Lam were second only to Perry Mason in Gardner’s oeuvre; he was writing novels about them up until the 1970s, 29 in all.

Hard Case brought out a never-before-published Cool and Lam book last year, The Knife Slipped, and it was a revelation to me; it was a hugely engaging and entertaining book, largely because Cool and Lam are much better-drawn characters than Perry Mason and his posse. I like a Perry Mason mystery every once in a while but they tend to run together in my head, I’d be hard put to tell you what any specific one is about. I don’t think that would happen with a Cool and Lam book.

Anyway, Hard Case has followed up with this new edition of the second in the series, Turn On The Heat. Here’s the blurb… Hired by a mysterious “Mr. Smith” to find a woman who vanished 21 years earlier, Donald Lam finds himself facing a sadistic cop, a desperate showgirl, a duplicitous client, and one very dogged (and beautiful) newspaper reporter—while Bertha Cool’s attempts to cut herself in on this lucrative opportunity land them both hip-deep in murder…

I daresay the series owes a little to Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe — Donald Lam and Archie Goodwin are nearly identical in their outlook, and like Archie in the Wolfe novels, Donald Lam is our wisecracking narrator. Despite what seems to me to be the pretty visible influence of Rex Stout, though, the Cool and Lam books are nevertheless very much their own thing. And this one is a lot of fun. Recommended.

The other is a new Quarry novel from Max Allan Collins, following up on the success of the Cinemax TV series: Quarry’s Climax.

I’ve written about the Quarry books several times… it remains my favorite Collins series. I think one of the reasons I enjoy these books so much is because it melds the headlong pulpy momentum of Mickey Spillane with the gleefully transgressive sensibility of seventies trash paperback series like The Executioner or The Liquidator. But, y’know, better.

To give you an idea of what I mean, one need go no further than the back cover blurb… THERE’S NOTHING MORE DANGEROUS THAN A LOADED MAGAZINE! Memphis, 1975: “Raunchy” doesn’t begin to describe Max Climer’s magazine, Climax, or his all-hours strip club, or his planned video empire. Evangelists, feminists, and local watchdog groups all want him out of business. But someone wants more than that, and has hired a killer to end Max’s career permanently. Only another hit man—the ruthless professional known as Quarry, star of the acclaimed series on Cinemax—can keep Climer from becoming a casualty in the Sexual Revolution.

I assure you the book lives up to that promise. Plus, Collins can plot a mystery; everything develops naturally and the puzzle is always taxing without ever feeling contrived. That may not be a consideration for some readers, but it’s kind of a thing with me; if the puzzle is lame in a mystery novel it sours the book for me no matter how brilliant the prose might be. I always enjoy seeing it done well and Collins does it better than most. I recommend all the Quarry books and you can read them in most any order, but I enjoyed this one more than any of them since The Wrong Quarry. I am endlessly grateful to Charles Ardai for getting Collins to bring Quarry back and I hope Collins keeps it going forever.

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Star Trek in the Park! A month ago or so I mentioned that Julie and I were volunteering as part of Hello Earth’s Outdoor Trek production of Day of the Dove.

Day of the Dove, you may recall, is the one with Kang and the energy being that feeds on rage and hate.

Well, the show wrapped this weekend and we had such tremendous fun being part of it (just a teeny tiny part, mostly ushering and manning the merchandise table, but we were part of it!) that I’m still kind of grinning about it. One of the perks of volunteering was getting to know the company a little. Last night was the cast party and we were struck, again, by what lovely people the cast and crew of this production are. Talented and funny, too.

Part of the fun of the gathering was a screening of the original episode. I hadn’t seen it in years (not really a fan of the third season of the original Trek and so we don’t have it here in the library) and I was struck by how our little DIY theatrical effort improved on the original. For one thing, Anna Richardson’s Mara is so much better than Susan Howard’s… in the TV version she comes off as helpless and diffident, but Anna made her badder than Kang.

But our favorite thing Outdoor Trek did with the story was something so innovative and wonderfully surprising I am hard put to describe it– the alien that is the villain of the piece.

When we first heard they were doing “Day of the Dove” I was really baffled as to how they were going to portray the energy being itself, since it was basically a flicker of light, possibly one of the most perfunctory effects ever done in the original Star Trek. How do you do that in an outdoor theater when you are working with homemade props and no budget?

The solution was amazingly clever and evocative. Two butoh dancers portrayed the energy being, never speaking, but surrounding the cast making gleeful and sinuous moves every time the conflict escalated. They were awesomely creepy. (Very sweet, pleasant ladies in real life, but they had wonderfully angular and expressive faces that gave an extra malevolence to the performance.) Despite handing out hundreds of programs over the last few weekends, we forgot to keep one, so I don’t know their names (because I suck.) But they were wonderful.

It wasn’t just me. Julie remarked on the way home that the dancers had completely spoiled her. “After what they did, that little Christmas light thing is nothing.”

I don’t think anyone taped the entire performance this year, but I was experimenting with our camera’s video function and got this little bit. This is the musical number…. one of the ways Outdoor Trek productions adapt and remix the original is to add an intermission with a musical break. For Amok Time it was Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir,” last year’s Space Seed was R.E.M.’s “Losing My Religion,” and this year… well, see for yourself.

Sadly, this is the end of Outdoor Trek for the time being, though Hello Earth is going to be doing other SF productions in the future. (Next summer’s is planned to be a story from a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away.) Certainly Julie and I plan to keep volunteering as long as they’ll have us.

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Children of the Night! I’m a big Dracula fan and always have been. Books, movies, comics, whatever. If it stars the Count, I’m probably in.

Likewise, I have a huge fondness for the paperback adventure series of the sixties and seventies, especially the really weird ones like Attar the Merman or Black Samurai or The Force. So I’m at a loss as to how this series managed to stay off my radar for forty years.

The Dracula Horror Series from Robert Lory came out at roughly the same time Marv Wolfman and Gene Colan were really hitting their stride on Tomb of Dracula and it’s interesting how Lory and Wolfman approached the same basic story problem– how do you make the evil Count Dracula the hero of a series?

In the Marvel comics, Marv Wolfman usually put Dracula up against an evil that was far worse — Dr. Sun, for example– or else he focused on various members of the supporting cast like Blade or Hannibal King. Lory takes a different tack — he has Dracula captured by a super secret agency and implanted with a remote control device that will launch a wooden shard directly into Dracula’s heart should he misbehave. Under the command of the agency’s Professor Harmon and aided by a shape-changing girl named Ktara, with the muscle provided by a giant named Cam, they form a sort of Suicide Squad of the supernatural, fighting witches, zombies, sorcerers, and other assorted nasty things.

The books are highly sought-after and go for ridiculously high prices. But I managed to find the first in the series for about four dollars and I thought it was pretty entertaining– not quite as entertaining as the blurb made it sound, but then the Avenger and Doc Savage never really lived up to their seventies paperback blurbs either. I don’t feel strongly enough about it to go find the rest, and I still think Fred Saberhagen’s New Dracula is the series to beat in this area… but Lory’s Draculas are worth a look if you stumble across one for cheap. Don’t pay collector prices though, they’re not THAT good.

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That’s all I’ve got, this time out. One hopes that somewhere in the above you’ll find some diversions and distractions to help make your adulthood bearable. If not, well… I’ll be back next week with something cool and we’ll try again.

6 Comments

  1. frasersherman

    Ron Goulart’s Dime Detectives includes a look at several Gardner pulp series, such as the Benevolent Picador (IIRC) who robs from the rich and gives to the SPCA.
    I love Perry Masons, but I never got around to the Lam/Cool books. You give me an incentive.

  2. Edo Bosnar

    Man, must be nice getting those Quarry books sent to you – I still have over a month to wait before it’s released in the UK, just so I can order it for a reasonable price and get it mailed to me.
    Agreed about Quarry, though. Those books are so totally engrossing – I think it’s precisely because Collins adds the element of mystery which always compels Quarry to engage in a bit of sleuthing (otherwise, why would we care about the adventures of a not-quite ex-killer for hire?). And yes, Wrong Quarry is one of the better of the more recent crop of Quarry books – although my favorites are still the first three from the 1970s and Quarry’s Vote.

    1. Edo Bosnar

      Not at all – I think it’s a really cool font, too. In fact, the first three covers in general look simply awesome, like well-designed movie posters. In fact, if I stumbled onto any of those in a used bookstore and they were cheap enough, I’d probably get them for the cover art alone.

  3. Jeff Nettleton

    Always liked Day of the Dove; swashbuckling swordfights on starships is pretty darn cool. Plus, Michael Ansara is the ultimate bad-ass Klingon. Pretty darn good Technomage, too, on Babylon 5 (too bad they didn’t bring him back, in the series).

    You can pretty much spot a Robert McGinnis cover by the legs and feet of the women, if nothing else. Always long and lean, usually showing pink at the heels and balls of the feet. Actually, looking at it, I have to wonder how much of an artistic influence he was on Paul Gulacy, apart from the thematic influence of the Bond posters, on Master of Kung Fu. Gulacy seemed to pick up a lot of his staging in his paintings, and portrayed similar physical attributes.

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