Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Radio Interviews with Edward Bunker and Danny Trejo

Danny Trejo
Danny Trejo, the movie tough guy, and real-life tough guy, of films like “Machete,” and Edward Bunker, former convict and author of hard novels like No Beast So Fierce, knew each other.

They met in prison.

Edward Bunker
Both Trejo and Bunker spent parts of their youths in California state correctional facilities.

Last week, Terry Gross, host of radio’s Fresh Air program, interviewed Danny Trejo who spoke about his early days and how he came to know Bunker.

Then, in the same one-hour program, Gross replayed a long excerpt from her 1993 interview with Bunker.

Hearing Bunker’s voice was as interesting as what he had to say. Bunker died in 2005.

The interviews can be found and heard here (NPR).

Friday, March 16, 2018

FFB: Odd Man Out by F.L. Green

This week’s read for Friday's Forgotten Books, is an old, possibly forgotten, crime story set in Ireland. It is F.L. Green’s 1945 novel, Odd Man Out.

During World War II, four Belfast men hold up a large linen mill and make off with the payroll. Johnny, head of a political opposition group called The Revolutionary Organization, planned the heist to raise money for the cause. But the plans go wrong, mostly due to him. Feeling ill, he hesitates and is caught outside the front doors by a pursuing mill executive with a gun. Johnny kills the office worker and is himself shot and wounded. He stumbles to the getaway car, but the nervous driver speeds off before he can climb in and he is thrown into the street. Now alone, Johnny has to find a safe place to hide and make his way back to his own neighborhood.

Here the book leaves Johnny and follows the other three robbers as they return to a safe house. Distraught by the killing, the wounding of Johnny and the loss of him during the getaway, they report to the stern second in command of the Organization. Green does a good job depicting the nerves before and during the holdup, and the anxiety and fear after it.

Odd Man Out is divided into two sections. The first continues following the three men who attempt to hide in their neighborhood while police comb the area. Four other men from the group go in search of Johnny. None of this goes well. The police quickly block roads and send out numerous patrols. One man trying to avoid the cops by getting on a crowded city tram is a highlight.

A woman named Agnes, who is in love with Johnny and will do anything to help him, risks her own life by going in search of him. There is a wonderful scene in which Agnes goes to an elderly priest. The priest already has a visitor, a cunning creep holding a birdcage and telling a story of his injured bird. The story of course refers to Johnny and this man’s attempt to sell information.

The second part of the book picks up Johnny’s story and follows him, covering the same time period as the first section and extending to the end.

Odd Man Out is full of excellent scenes. A pair of middle aged sisters find the wounded Johnny and tend to him only to have their husbands come home and insist they put him out in the street. If the police catch them helping him, they will all be sent to prison. But if they turn him in to the cops, the Organization will hunt them down. It is a great dilemma.

Others run into the same problem. The owner of a large, rowdy pub sees Johnny slip in and hide in a secluded part of the bar. Should he throw him out? Should he let him stay? What if his patrons spot him?

There is a lot to like in Odd Man Out. But there is also a lot that put me off. Far too many passages in this book had me thinking of Rule No. 10 of Elmore Leonard’s advice on good writing: “Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.”

Still, Odd Man Out, is a good story and worth reading.

A fairly new edition is available on Amazon (the cover is shown here) with an introduction by Adrian McKinty, author of the excellent, Belfast-set Sean Duffy mysteries.

In 1947, Odd Man Out was produced as a movie starring James Mason as Johnny and directed by Carol Reed. I’ve only seen the picture once and that was many years ago. What I remember is an exciting first half and a dull second half, dominated by the scenery-chewing actor Robert Newton.

As for movies, anyone in the mood for a charming film to watch on St. Patrick’s Day should check out “The Rising of the Moon” showing tomorrow afternoon on TCM.

(For more posts on books, check out Patti Abbott’s blog.)

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Weird Crime Film: Decoy

One of the looniest crime movies I have ever seen is “Decoy,” a low-budget picture from 1946. This one has to be seen to be believed.

The story is a fairly routine tale of betrayal by a femme fatale whose lover is in prison, facing execution, and refusing to reveal where he hid the cash from an armored car robbery.

But there is a science fiction twist to the tale that is riveting. The woman learns of a drug that will revive the dead, but only if administered within one hour of death.

Her plan is to use sex to recruit the prison doctor. He will fall for her, do whatever she wants, take charge of the body, transport it to his office and bring the mug back to life. The woman also recruits the executed gangster’s rival, her new lover, who will force the no-longer-dead guy to reveal the location of the money.

Director Jack Bernhard builds some decent tension as the hour after the execution is filled with bureaucrat obstacles for the doctor. In the hands of a Hitchcock, the tension could have been prolonged and unbearable.

The real highlight of the picture is the revival, when the doctor applies the drug and the man wakes.

Actor Robert Armstrong (the guy who led the expedition to Skull Island and captured King Kong in that original movie) is amazing as the man who comes back from the dead. This scene alone was worth the price of admission.

British actress, Jean Gillie, played the woman, Edward Norris was the dead man’s rival, Herbert Rudley played the doctor, and Sheldon Leonard played a tough cop on the trail of the missing money.

This movie came to my attention thanks to Steve at Mystery*File.

(For more posts on film, TV and more, check out Todd Mason’s site.)

Friday, March 9, 2018

FFB: The Killings at Badger’s Drift by Caroline Graham

The 1987 who-done-it, The Killings at Badger’s Drift, is not the kind of book I usually read, but I’ve enjoyed the British television show, “Midsomer Mysteries,” based on it and the subsequent books by Caroline Graham, so I was curious to see how the series began.

In The Killings at Badger’s Drift, Graham introduces Detective Chief Inspector Tom Barnaby, his junior officer, Detective Sergeant Gavin Troy, and Barnaby’s wife Joyce and daughter Cully, as well as the fictional county of Midsomer, its largest town, Causton, and the rest of the area dotted with picturesque villages.

Badger’s Drift is a tiny English hamlet that seems serene and quaint on the outside, but inside is roiling with all sorts of nasty business. The homes are close enough together to allow the neighbors to know all the comings and goings and everyone else’s business.

One day, Emily Simpson, a retired school teacher, and her friend, Ms. Bellringer, are out in the woods hunting for rare flowers. They separate and after Ms. Simpson spots a rarity, she is shocked by the sight of a couple getting it on in the bushes. Upset by what she has witnessed, she dashes home. The next day she is found dead on the living room floor.

Ms. Bellringer suspects foul play and reports her suspicions to the police. When Sgt. Troy does not seem interested in her story, she insists on speaking to a higher ranking officer. And that is how the case drops on DCI Barnaby.

Barnaby promises to check into the death, calls in the police doctor to have a look and poison is found in the woman's system. The inspector has a murder case on his hands.

Barnaby’s even handed methods of questioning suspects and collecting clues, and his gruff guidance of Troy, made for a breezy and enjoyable read.

For more on the DCI Barnaby series, Graham and the television program, see B.V. Lawson’s post on this book.

(For more posts on books, check out Patti Abbott’s blog.)

Thursday, March 1, 2018

FFB: The Thefts of Nick Velvet by Edward D. Hoch

Nick Velvet is a thief, but not any ordinary thief or even a high-toned thief with expensive tastes. Nick is a thief who specializes in impossible grabs of odd items. He never seals money or jewelry or artwork.

People contact him when they want something unusual stolen and for which they are willing to pay Nick’s fee of between $20,000 and $30,000.

In The Thefts of Nick Velvet, a 1978 collection of short stories by Edward D. Hoch, Nick is hired to steal things like a rare tiger, a major league baseball team, and the water from a man’s swimming pool. In that last, Nick was not allowed to just drain the pool, he had to steal all the water and deliver it to his client.

In my favorite of the 13 stories, Nick is hired to go to a rich man’s country house, break into a store room and steal what he finds there. When Nick arrives at the estate he finds the room empty. So what is there to steal?

The stories usually have at least two mysteries: How will Nick pull off the caper, and, why do his clients want those strange items? Both are cleverly solved by Hoch in a deceptively simple, breezy style.

Edward D. Hoch
Most of the stories in this collection first appeared in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine between 1966 and 1975. Hoch (1930-2008), a prolific writer, had a short story in every issue of the magazine for 34 years.

(For more posts on books, check out Patti Abbott’s blog.)

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Early film noir: Street of Chance

A man walking down a city street gets knocked out by falling debris and wakes up not sure of his own name. Looking around, he has no idea why he is in that part of town. When he goes home, he finds his apartment is not his and his wife moved away a year ago. Who is he? What has he been doing for a year? And worse, who is the tough-looking thug following him?

This is a great set-up for a film noir. It was adapted from a story by one of the great writers of noir tales, Cornell Woolrich.

Woolrich (1903-1968) wrote many stories about people’s fears. His characters often dread something in their past is catching up with them, or that they have inadvertently brushed up against evil, and now it is coming for them. His stories include Phantom Lady, Deadline at Dawn, Black Angel, and “It Had To Be Murder,” the original short story that later was made as the movie “Rear Window.”

In the 1942 film, “Street of Chance,” from Woolrich’s 1941novel, The Black Curtain, the great American character actor Burgess Meredith is the man who finds he has been living two lives. His wife is played by Louise Platt, who appeared three years earlier in John Ford’s “Stagecoach.” The man’s girlfriend for the previous year, a woman he now has no memory of, is played by Claire Trevor. Trevor was also in “Stagecoach" and appeared in several noir films including “Murder, My Sweet” and “Raw Deal." The thug is played by Sheldon Leonard.

“Street of Chance” was efficiently directed by Jack Hivley, who got some good performances out of his players, but could not overcome the low-budget look of the picture.

Still, this movie is a good – if a little obvious – who-done-it, and a first rate example of noir storytelling.

A faded version of this movie is on YouTube. But since this film is hard to find, faded is better than nothing.

(For more posts on film, TV and more, check out Todd Mason’s site.)

Monday, February 19, 2018

Film of blinded war vet “Bright Victory”

This post is a DVR alert.

On Thursday, February 22, Turner Classic Movies will show a terrific little film called “Bright Victory.”

It is the story of a soldier blinded in battle during World War II, and sent to an Army hospital in the U.S. to recover and learn to deal with his loss of sight. He also has to learn to overcome his emotional response and the reactions of his family.

Arthur Kennedy stars in this 1951 movie and was nominated for an Academy Award for his performance.

Don’t miss it.

(For other posts on film, TV, and more, check out Todd Mason’s blog.)

Friday, February 16, 2018

FFB: They Shoot Horses, Don't They? by Horace McCoy

Horace McCoy’s gritty, sweaty, 1935 novel They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? is a terrific little, 129-page book.

Robert shoots and kills a girl, and that is not a spoiler, he tells us this on the first page. While listening to the judge sentence him, he thinks back on how he got involved with her.

He and Gloria, after failing to find a day’s work as extras at Paramount Pictures in Hollywood, meet on the sidewalk, talk and quickly decide to enter a dance marathon in the hopes of winning the $1,000 prize and being discovered by influential movie people who might be in the audience.

Dozens of other couples have the same dream and will put themselves through grueling hours, days and weeks of dancing round the clock, with ten minute breaks to eat and sleep before being summoned back to the floor.

McCoy, who had many jobs including soldier, reporter and actor, landed in Los Angeles in the early 1930s, pursuing an acting career. Acting did not pan out, but he continued to write novels, short stories and many screenplays until his death in 1955. Several sources say he also worked as a bouncer at a dance marathon. Whether he did or not, he knew his subject and described the marathon in detail with well-drawn characters, from the shady people running the event, to the desperate people competing in it, to the crowds attending it to see the worn out couples collapsing from exhaustion.

Robert and Gloria have dreams of breaking into the movies and making it big in Hollywood, but while Robert’s dream is still alive, Gloria’s is crushed and fading fast.

They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? could be about Hollywood and how it treats the young hopefuls. Or, the dance marathon could represent the country during the Great Depression, with people willing to do anything to keep living. Most of the dancers are thankful just to have a place to sleep and eat for free. Or, it could be McCoy’s take on human life, but I hope not, otherwise it would make him as cynical, disillusioned and depressed as Gloria. Throughout the book, she keeps telling Robert she wishes she were dead and finally begs him to kill her.

The cops arresting Robert ask why he did it? The former farm boy, recalling a plow horse that broke its leg, answers, “They shoot horses, don’t they?”

Horace McCoy pulls no punches in this book, and some of the language is surprisingly coarse for a novel published in 1935. Several times Gloria snaps off a “f— you” at people, which the publisher printed just that way. She tells off some do-gooders in colorful language and urges a fellow dancer to get an abortion, nearly causing a fight between Robert and the girl’s husband. And Gloria, for cash or advantage, has a quickie under the bandstand with the sleazy master of ceremonies. All this makes They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? sound like an unsavory novel, but McCoy’s talent keeps everything moving and understandable, and for a book about people going round and round in a circle, there is not a dull passage.

After reading the book, I looked for newsreel footage on these kinds of events. Here is a YouTube clip about 1930s dance marathons. Just about everything shown here is also in McCoy’s book.

(For more posts on books, head over to Todd Mason's blog. He is compiling this week's Forgotten Books list for Patti Abbott.)

Monday, February 12, 2018

A Day for “Lincoln”

When I first went to school, we kids had two holidays in February.

One was George Washington's Birthday, February 22, a national holiday since 1885. But Congress, in order to form a more perfect weekend, declared it a floating date and ever since 1971 the holiday has floated to the third Monday of the month. This legislative change was part of the Uniform Monday Holiday Act. (I’m not kidding, you can look it up.) The federal government still calls this day Washington’s Birthday, but most everyone else calls it Presidents Day.

The other day out of school was February 12, Abraham Lincoln’s Birthday. This was not a federal holiday, but states could declare it locally, and so we had the day off.

Today is February 12, and to remember the man, I am recommending the 2012 movie, “Lincoln.”

It is one of the best films Stephen Spielberg ever directed and it has an outstanding performance by Daniel Day-Lewis as the 16th president.

Other generations have had their Lincoln movies, and for years Henry Fonda, in 1939’s “Young Mr. Lincoln,” and Raymond Massey, in 1940’s “Abe Lincoln in Illinois,” were the images many held in their minds. Both were fine actors, but for me, Day-Lewis outdid them by becoming the flesh and blood man. The actor disappeared into the role and he won an Academy Award for his performance.

So today, or sometime this month, see this picture again. And if you have not seen it, put it at the top of your list.

(For other posts on film, TV, and more, check out Todd Mason’s blog.)

Friday, February 9, 2018

FFB: Art in America by Ron McLarty

Ron McLarty’s 2008 novel Art in America is part comedy, part tragedy, and part crime story, peopled with well drawn characters.

In the first few pages, Steven Kearney, a struggling, middle-age, New York City writer with few if any produced plays and several unpublished books, is dumped by his girlfriend, kicked out of his apartment and hit by a taxi. But he is taken in by his old friend Roarke, a theater director who believes in Kearney's talent.

His luck changes when he is offered a paying gig by a small Colorado town to go there and write a play about its history.

The town of Creedemore is filled with residents trying to get along with one another and usually failing. There is nonagenarian Ticky Lettgo a cantankerous old, gun-toting, tough-talking, land owner and his dispute with newcomer Mountain Man Red Fields, the owner and guide of a river-rafting company. When Mountain Man takes customers down a waterway cutting through Ticky’s property, Ticky shoots up the rafts, scares the bejabbers out of the timid tourists and winds up in court fighting to uphold his rights as he sees them.

The trial attracts a crowd of spectators including old-style Westerners supporting Ticky, and protestors on Mountain Man’s side. Some of the protestors get so carried away that they plot a terrorist act to make a point.

Trying to control all this is Sheriff Petey Meyers, a former Boston cop whose partner was killed in the line of duty. Petey talks to his dead partner regularly and out loud, especially when situations get dicey.

Through all this, Kearney toils away at his art, filled at first with self-doubt, but finding his way and a new life, new friends and even love.

Ron McLarty is a long-time character actor whom many would recognize from dozens of TV appearances, including several episodes of “Law & Order” in which he played a cranky judge.

(For more posts on books, head over to Todd Mason's blog. He is compiling this week's Forgotten Books list for Patti Abbott.)