Friday, March 9, 2018

Writers Born Today - Mickey Spillane Born 100 Years Ago

It's the 100th anniversary of the birth of Frank Morrison Spillane, born March 9, 1918 in Brooklyn. The creator of Mike Hammer, his writing had a huge impact in the publishing world. Readers loved his novels, but critics despised them.

Spillane's father, an Irish bartender, gave him the nickname "Mickey". He developed a knack for story helped him avoid beatings by older kids in his tough neighborhood. By the end of high school, he had sold his first story to a pulp magazine. After some college he got a job writing comics. World War II interrupted his literary pursuits and with scant success in the comic trade, Spillane turned to writing novels using Mike Danger, a P.I. hero he created for the comics. He renamed the character Mike Hammer, and churned out the first novel with this hero in just three weeks. The publisher, E.P. Dutton, didn't think much of the writing, but bought it anyway, in part as a favor to Spillane's agent. It would change how people thought of the detective novel.

I, The Jury sold a respectable 10,000 copies in hardcover, but when released in paperback, sales exploded, literally. Over a million copies were sold, and Spillane churned out half a dozen more novels in the next few years featuring his hard hitting and often brutal hero. Spillane's timing was perfect. Paperbacks were cheap and fed the public's postwar demand for action and adventure filled stories.

Literary gems they were not. A new Mike Hammer novel brought enormous sales, but also scathing reviews from book critics. Anthony Boucher in the San Francisco Chronicle wrote of I, The Jury ,"so vicious a glorification of force, cruelty and extra-legal methods that the novel might be made required reading in a Gestapo training school."  The Saturday Review of Literature was more succinct. "Lurid action, lurid characters, lurid writing, lurid plot, lurid finish. Verdict: Lurid"

But Spillane didn't let the bad reviews bother him. "I don't give a hoot about readin' reviews. What I want to read is the royalty checks," he said. And the checks poured in, not just from print, but from television, radio and movie rights. One of the most successful screen adaptations was the movie Kiss Me Deadly, which starred Ralph Meeker as Mike Hammer.

Spillane created other protaganists, including spies Tiger Mann and Mako Hooker. He even wrote a few children's books and won a Junior Literary Guild award for one of them, The Day The Sea Rolled BackIn real life, Spillane bore little resemblance to his hard as nails characters. He was a Jehovah's Witness, and neither drank nor smoked.

By the time he returned to writing Mike Hammer novels in the 60s, his literary reputation was improving. In 1995, the Mystery Writers of America gave him their Grand Master, the highest award in the mystery field in recognition of his lifetime achievements as a writer.

To date, his novels have sold over 200 million copies.

"Mike Hammer drinks beer because I can't spell Cognac."

- Mickey Spillane

Monday, February 19, 2018

Mystery History - Ann Savage Born Today

It's the birthday of actress Ann Savage, born February 19, 1921 in South Carolina. She gained fame in the 1940s as a sultry femme fatale in more than a dozen low budget noir films. She grew up in Los Angeles and had her first screen test at the age of 17.  She studied acting with the famous director Max Reinhardt. After signing a contract with Columbia Pictures, she was cast in several crime films, including One Dangerous Night and After Midnight with Boston Blackie.

Most of her roles were simply window dressing. As she said once, "The actresses were just scenery. The stories all revolved around the male actors; they really had the choice roles. All the actresses had to do was to look lovely, since the dialogue was ridiculous."

All that changed in 1945 with her most famous role as Vera. A hitchhiker picked up by Al Roberts in the film Detour, Vera discovers a deadly secret about Al and uses this knowledge to extort money from him. Her venomous performance and cutting dialogue earned her high praise and elevated the film to cult classic status. After the film entered the public domain, it began to receive more attention and was shown on television and made its way to VHS. During the 70s, critics began to recognize its important status in film noir history.

Roger Ebert had this to say about the film: "This movie from Hollywood's poverty row... filled with technical errors and ham-handed narrative, starring a man who can only pout and a woman who can only sneer, should have faded from sight soon after it was released in 1945. And yet it lives on, haunting and creepy, an embodiment of the guilty soul of film noir. No one who has seen it has easily forgotten it."

The movie's revival encouraged Ann to attend numerous film festivals, where she began to attract a new generation of fans, including film director Steven Spielberg. Time magazine named her as one of film's "Top Ten Villains" in 2005. In 2007, she was cast as the mother in the critically acclaimed movie My Winnipeg.

She discussed her acting career in an rare interview which you can watch below.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Wicked Wednesday Villains We Love - Michael Lister's Gauge

"Did you just take a picture of me?"

The voice is not hostile. In fact, it's friendly and even a little whimsical. But that doesn't last long. Remington is in deep trouble. He discovers this when he attempts to take another picture of the man behind that voice, and a rifle slug nearly takes his head off.

"I'm tired of having my picture took." As Remington flees into the woods the words of the murderer echo in his head..."It's the end of the line, partner."

But it's not the end of our encounter with Gauge, the killer in Double Exposure. It's just the beginning.

Michael Lister's suspense novel, Double Exposure, places his hero in mortal danger early in the story. Remington retrieves his camera trap from deep within the Florida wilderness and discovers a series of photographs that could make his reputation as a photographer. That's the good news.

The bad news? Those photographs could also get him killed.

The photos expose the murder of a woman and the man who murdered her. Remington has to get out of the woods and to the police. Unfortunately he's not alone, as he discovers when the camera trap is triggered and the flash goes off. And a voice from the dusk asks a question. "Did you just take a picture of me?"

Gauge is one of the most disturbing villains in crime fiction, because he's so damn likable. I haven't encountered a villain quite like this in crime literature since I first read The Killer Inside Me by Jim Thompson.

Even after being shot at, Remington finds himself talking to the very man who is hunting him, courtesy of a walkie talkie he lifted from one of Gauge's friends, called in to help hunt Remington down. Remington had to kill the man in self defense, and Gauge uses this knowledge to his advantage.

"You out there killer?" he says over the airwaves. He plays with Remington's emotions, pointing out the similarities between them. Both men have killed, both in order to defend themselves. At least that's the story Gauge feeds to Remington as he tries to create self doubt in the young photographer's mind. This self-rationalization has only one purpose, of flush out Remington, kill him, and destroy the evidence. The soothing voice of the devil could be the man at the corner diner having breakfast with you before a deer hunt.

What do we know of Gauge? He's an employee of the Florida Wildlife Dept, as evidenced by the patch on his uniform. He knows the woods as well, perhaps better than Remington, who grew up in them. He comes from the same background, the same culture. And we also know that he has killed a woman, and buried her in the Florida woods. Remington has the pics to prove it, and Gauge can't allow him to leave these woods alive.

The author described him in these words: "Gauge is a character I feel like I "met" or was introduced to far more than one I created. He seemed to arrive fully formed to do only what he wanted to do. I view him as a charming shark, a sociopath. He is honest and practical and as cold as you'd expect someone without a soul to be. He doesn't have a conscience and he doesn't believe he's missing out on anything. Unburdened by empathy, he has decided to try and have fun during every immoral act he commits."

We see what Michael Lister means as the novel progresses and the night deepens. Gauge continues to talk to Remington, even flattering the young man. He's giving Remington odds on his survival. They started at 20 to 1. They're now down to 12 to 1.

"I'll take a piece of that. Put me down for twenty," Remington says.

"You got it," Gauge replies.

The reader gets the impression that Gauge is actually an OK guy. But the illusion doesn't last when Gauge strikes out at the person Remington cares most about. I never saw it coming. Neither will you.

It's easy to create a protagonist you can admire. It's a lot harder to create villains with sympathy who aren't two-dimensional. Michael Lister does both. And it's a pleasure to read. If we're lucky, we'll never meet Gauge in person...or someone like him.

Monday, January 22, 2018

Hail Storme is a Pounding Thriller

Ex-NFL player Wyatt Storme is bow hunting in Missouri when he stumbles across a huge marijuana field in the middle of the woods. He manages to subdue the guard dog and it's handler, but his discovery sets off a chain of disasters that Wyatt feels compelled to put right. The sheriff he alerts is shot dead the next day, and other people drawn into the investigation face danger from a drug conspiracy far bigger than just a few dozen acres of illicit weed. In the rural town of Paradise, some powerful businessmen have plans to mass produce a new drug called Dreamsicle that will make the crack epidemic of the 1980s look like a cozy tea party. Wyatt is determined to stop them before everyone he cares about is killed.

He teams up with Charles (Chick) Easton, a bounty hunter who's after the chemist who has concocted this new drug. Both men are Vietnam veterans and have seen more than their share of killing. They quickly bond as only battle hardened soldiers can. As Wyatt puts it, "He would be difficult to avoid liking." I liked him. You will, too. In fact, Chick is so likeable, he steals the scene in several chapters. Perhaps the author will give Easton his own series someday.

In the meantime, check out Hail Storme.  It has snappy dialogue and a story that keeps the pages turning. It's a great start to a excellent series, by W. L. Ripley.

Sunday, December 24, 2017

A Christmas Carol For Writers

For all writers who have submitted a query this year to an agent in hopes of getting published, this song will ring true! Sing to the tune "Oh, Christmas Tree".

Oh manuscript, Oh manuscript,
I long for agents calling,
with hope that they will never say
"You're storyline's appalling!"
I edit you all day and night,
to prove that I can truly write,
Oh manuscript, Oh manuscript,
I long for agents calling.

Oh manuscript, Oh manuscript,
I long for agents calling.
Revisions done, it wasn't fun.
My fingertips are bleeding.
My query's sent with greatest hope
that it will show I'm not a dope.
Oh manuscript, Oh manuscript,
I long for agents calling.

Oh manuscript, Oh manuscript,
I long for agents calling.
My hopes and dreams wait anxiously,
Rejections can be mauling.
It's ramen noodles for my next meal
Until I snag that three-book deal.
Oh manuscript, Oh manuscript,
I long for agents calling.

Merry Christmas Everyone!

Saturday, November 18, 2017

Picks By Pat Mentioned In Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine

I'm humbled to learn that my mystery blog, Picks By Pat, was mentioned in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine's Sept/Oct issue. This magazine has been a staple for lovers of crime fiction since 1941. Hat tip to Julie Mangan Tollefson.

Monday, October 23, 2017

Writers Born Today - Joel Goldman

It's the birthday of Joel Goldman, born October 23, 1952 in Kansas City.  He began his career as a lawyer, but switched to another life of crime; a writer of legal thrillers.

While joking around with another attorney in his firm, Joel suggested the best way to handle a difficult colleague was to write a mystery and kill him off. It was a good joke, but it got Joel to thinking. The result was his first thriller, Motion To Kill, published in 2002. Publisher's Weekly said it was filled with  high tension and had an electrifying finish. Four more thrillers followed featuring his smart and sassy protagonist Lou Mason, including Deadlocked, which Mystery Scene Magazine called "a real page turner delivered by a pro." It seemed that Goldman could do no wrong. Then unexpected health problems ended his legal career. Rather than dwell on the matter, Goldman turned to writing full time and created a new hero, FBI Special Agent Jack Davis, and gave his hero the same health issues that plagued him  as a way to deal with the change in his life.

Not content to just write crime fiction, Joel got into the publishing business with a new company he started with fellow crime writer Lee Goldberg. They started Brash Books in 2014 with the ambitious goal of publishing "the best crime novels in existence". At first they focused on top notch authors whose works had gone out of print, and even went so far as to hire a private detective to track down one missing writer who they wanted to publish! Since the company started they have published dozens of award winning authors and over 80 novels.

"Ask yourself the question I ask myself each time I start writing a new mystery – what happens when things go wrong, especially when you think no one’s looking?"

- Joel Goldman