Thursday, May 14, 2015


Now available: FIGHTING ALASKA, the ebook version

Pulp fans may be interested in my new tale, Fighting Alaska, an entry in the Fight Card series. Although it focuses on a NorthWestern setting, its action begins in the Texas Panhandle.

Set in 1900, Fighting Alaska tells the tale of a reluctant fighter's trip to the Alaskan gold rush. On the way, he encounters a fictional hero who may be recognized by fans of TV westerns from the late 1950s and early 1960s, as well as historical folks like Wyatt Earp, Rex Beach, and Tex Rickard.

You can find the ebook version now at Amazon. You can reach it by clicking here.  (For those who prefer paper and ink over Kindle pages, the print version should be available soon.)

You can also find my article on writing Fighting Alaska, "A Fighter's Trail to the Alaskan Gold Rush," at the Fight Card site. Read the article to find out why Charles Bronson's photo is included with this post. Click here to visit the site and see the article.

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Saturday, May 9, 2015


The vigor of pulp prose: Alistair MacLean's WHEN EIGHT BELLS TOLL

I remember the first novel by Alistair MacLean I read: Puppet on a Chain. I'd seen the TV commercials for the film version and was intrigued. However, I knew I'd likely not get to see it--I lived in a small town with one walk-in theatre and a drive-in, and in 1971 I could count on one hand the number of movies I'd been to see over the past ten years. If I saw a movie, I watched it on television. Those were the days before cable, and Hollywood films eventually were broadcast on prime-time networks, so I wasn't totally deprived of cinematic spectacle.

Reading Puppet on a Chain--the local library had a copy, and its shelves were well-stocked with the works of many crime and thriller writers--led me to other MacLean novels. (My interest was encouraged by the very dramatic cover paintings and consistent typographic treatments on the Fawcett paperback editions being published at the time. That red bulls-eye dot over the I in Alistair was just the perfect touch.) But most of my interest in MacLean ended by the time I left junior high school.

Seeing some new editions of MacLean on the bookstore shelves in recent years, I picked up When Eight Bells Toll. (It's nice to see some appropriately dramatic cover treatments on these new editions published by Sterling. They don't recall the style used by publishers in the 1960s and '70s for MacLean's books, but they appropriately communicate the dramatic vigor of his storytelling.) I'd not read this one before, and I wondered whether if my memories of MacLean would hold up after all these years. I remembered reading about five years ago an Agatha Christie novel--again, I went through a Christie phase of reading during junior high. I was remarkably bored. It's easy to see why her books receive so many film and TV treatments--activity, dialog, activity. Little to make the characters really interesting other than their tics and mannerisms and the murders happening around them.

Fortunately for me, this particular MacLean novel appeared (1966) during his glory days as a thriller writer. Some of his later works just didn't carry my interest, even when I was reading them as they were published. The first-person narrator is a man of action, and his cynical outlook combines with his sense of duty and his remarkable facility to survive to fashion an interesting character. He's a creature of his times--the 1966s were the days of James Bond's rising popularity, the aging of Cold War/Fear of the Bomb angst, and the growth of cultural unrest.

The following passage from late in the book--pages 186 and 187 in the 1966 Doubleday hardcover--give a sense of the vigor and action in MacLean's prose as his protagonist, Philip Calvert, describes an ally (Hutchinson) he's just recruited. It's the sort of writing one might have seen in the best Adventure or Blue Book writers (although one might argue they would have communicated the same in a shorter passage):

Those huge hands on the throttle and wheel had the delicacy of a moth. He had the night-sight of a barn owl and an ear which could infallibly distinguish between waves breaking in the open sea, on reefs or on shores: he could invariably tell the size and direction of seas coming at him out of the darkness and mist and touch wheel to throttle as need be: he had an inbuilt computer which provided instant correlation of wind, tide, current and our own speed and always let him know exactly where he was. And I'll swear he could smell land, even on a lee shore and with the rest of us suffering olfactory paralysis from the fumes of the big black cigars which seemed to be an inseparable part of the man. It required only ten minutes beside him to realize that one's ignorance of the sea and ships was almost total. A chastening discovery.

He took the Charmaine out through the Scylla and Charybdis of that evil alleged harbor entrance under full throttle. Foaming white-fanged reefs reached out at us, bare feet away, on either side. He didn't seem to notice them. He certainly didn't look at them. The two "boys" he'd brought with him, a couple of stunted lads of about six foot two or thereabouts, yawned prodigiously. Hutchinson located the Firecrest a hundred yards before I could even begin to imagine I could see any shape at all and brought the Charmaine alongside as neatly as I could park my car by the kerb in broad daylight--on one of my better days, that was.

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Thursday, April 16, 2015


The vigor of pulp prose

While rereading Nick Tosches' remarkable biography The Devil and Sonny Liston, I stop and marvel at some of his passages. This isn't pulp writing in its purple form we readers of outlandish fringe fiction are accustomed to. This is the fierce poteen of nonfiction prose distilled from documented facts, historical hindsight and interviews that percolates in the boiling stewpot of writer Tosches' skull. This is the kind of writing that brings a smile to an appreciative reader's face. (Or at least to his mental mouth--if you can have a mind's eye, can't you have a mind's lips?)

Liston's rise through the amateur ranks had been so fast and so fulminous--such a sudden, attention-commanding burst of neon lightning and Shango thunder--that the price negotiated for his professional debut was two hundred dollars, about four times the going rate for a preliminary novice.

Fulminous: a word you don't see very often unless you're a chemical engineer in a niche career or a backyard pyrotechnist, ala George Plimpton. Or, perhaps, a meteorologist. But it's a word I like, perhaps all the more so because of its rarity.

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Saturday, November 23, 2013


If the Pulps StiII Thrived: Charles McCarry as a contemporary Blue Book writer

Imagine, if you will, that two venerable pulp magazines focusing on adventure fiction -- one aptly named Adventure, the other Blue Book -- still can be found on magazine racks in convenience stores and chain bookshops. That Adventure did not reach the end of its day as a men's sweat mag in 1971, as depicted in It'sA Man's World: Men's Adventure Magazines, The Postwar Pulps, but recreated itself in its own earlier image as a fiction magazine filled with adventure stories written by the finest members of Fawcett/Gold Medal's stable of PBO authors of crime fiction and westerns. That Blue Book did not die in 1956, to be resurrected also as a men's sweat mag titled Bluebook for Men, but continued to provide an outlet for stirring stories by John D. MacDonald, Frank Robinson, Richard Wormser, and Frank O'Rourke, plus writers new to its pages, such as Ed McBain (whose stories did appear in Argosy in the 1960s), Harry Whittington, Richard Wheeler, Mario Puzo, and others.

So, happily in our fantasy, you are able to go to a store and purchase the latest issue of Blue Book, which includes stories of adventure by folks writing in the tradition of the Blue Book of yore -- literate tales of adventure, of striving, of fighting and violence, of treasure and romance -- written in a readable, not-too-purple prose whose style emphasizes storytelling and entertainment, not shock and sensation.

One of those writers might be Charles McCarry.

I've been aware of McCarry only a short while, but each reference to him I've seen describes him as a "great but unknown" writer or, as in a article by Morton Marcus, "the undiscovered master of the spy novel."

I first heard of McCarry through separate mentions on two email discussion lists. First on Rara-Avis, a group dedicated to discussion of hard-boiled fiction (and named in honor of Caspar Gutman's nickname, rare bird, for the Maltese Falcon), when someone pointed to McCarry in a cyber- conversation about writers who were former CIA agents. The poster included this URL for an article by P.J. O'Rourke from the September 13, 2004 issue of The Weekly Standard, "No Country for Old Men: Charles McCarry's Gray-haired Spies Take a Curtain Call."

Ostensibly a review of McCarry's latest novel, OldBoys, the essay provides an overview of McCarry's literary career, and is a good introduction to his work.

The next mention of McCarry on an email list provided another URL, this one to an interview with the author at an online magazine, The Morning News.

In this, McCarry provides an interesting inside look at the CIA during his days as a Cold Warrior and at his cover as a writer while he was a spy.

Intrigued by these bits of info, I found a copy of Old Boys. I recommend it whole-heartedly to those readers looking for new writers who carry that torch of entertainment that lit the delights we find in old pulp magazines.

While reading this story, I could imagine it serialized in a contemporary version of Adventure or Blue Book -- covert meetings, encounters with mysterious and dangerous people in exotic locales (Paris, Moscow, Xinjiang, Brazil, Rome, Tel Aviv, Budapest, Kyrgyz, and more) international threats, personal danger, old Nazis, treasures to locate (a 2000-year-old Roman scroll originally unearthed by the Nazis, 12 nuclear bombs smuggled from a Soviet arsenal), betrayals, gunfights, hand-to-hand battles, spies and counterspies. In short, more than enough ingredients for a great adventure novel.

McCarry's writing style follows the pulp-style tradition, the non-florid (but not so spare as to be gaunt) but clean and smooth style of writers like Dashiell Hammett, George F. Worts (I'm thinking of the Peter the Brazen stories in Argosy), Theodore Roscoe, Talbot Mundy, Georges Surdez, and innumerable PBO (paperback original) authors for Gold Medal and other publishers (such as John D. MacDonald, Charles Williams, Dan Marlowe, Edward S. Aarons, Donald Hamilton and others). If you like the cool but elegant prose of spy story writer Alan Furst, you'll have an idea about the prose McCarry creates.

And McCarry gets kudos even from someone like Eric Ambler, no slouch in the thriller department.

Old Boys is not the latest book from McCarry, but it seems to wrap up a loose series of books about spy Paul Christopher and his nephew, spy Horace Hubbard. (The first of these books, The MiernikDossier, was also McCarry's first novel.) However, one doesn't have to read the entire series and know all the backstory to read and enjoy Old Boys. As noted, it was the first McCarry book I read, and I picked up all the character history I needed during the course of the narrative to rave about it here. I'll be going on the hunt for McCarry's other novels now.

We live in a fortunate time, now that all McCarry's books are back in print, primarily thanks to Overlook Press. You'll find Amazon's Charles McCarry page here.

As a former spook, it's appropriate for McCarry to have written a novel about the JFK assassination (a timely reference, since this month marks the 50th year from that murder): The Tears of Autumn. An article by Mark Judge about the novel and its implications, "Charles McCarry’s unbearable masterpiece," can be found here.

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