Monday, January 25, 2010

The Professional

Since The Professional is the last complete Spenser novel by the late Robert B. Parker I'd like to say it was a return to the glory days of the series. That's not the case, but it's definitely a notch above the last couple of entries in the long running saga of Spenser. In this one Spenser is hired by a lawyer representing a group of rich society wives. All four members of the group are being blackmailed by the same man, with whom they've all had affairs. They'd like for Spenser to make the blackmail stop. Seems simple enough until the bodies begin to pile up.
As I said, not a classic Spenser, but pretty good. I think that knowing it would be my last visit with my favorite Private Eye added something to it. I perhaps laughed harder than I would have at the wisecracks, and nodded my head as Parker trotted out some of his favorite bits of business. Many of the series regulars were there. The Boston cops Quirk and Belson. Gangster Tony Marcus and his bodyguards Ty-bop and Junior. Pearl the wonder dog. Professional shooter Vinnie Morris. There was perhaps a bit too much of Spenser's girlfriend Susan and perhaps not enough of Spenser's dangerous pal, Hawk, but that was something I'd come to expect. The Susan/Hawk ratio tended to vary from book to book and I figured I'd get more or less of one of the other in the next book. But now there won't be a next book.
Spenser did a little more actual detective work in this one than in some of the other recent books and there were some nice plot twists, especially near the end. But mostly there was Spenser just being Spenser one last time. Wisecracking, straight shooting, two fisted Spenser. An era has ended, folks.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Happy Birthday, Robert E. Howard.

It's Robert E. Howard's birthday. The creator of Conan, Kull, Solomon Kane, and so many other amazing characters. So raise a flagon to the spirit of adventure and to the memory of a talent that burned brightly but for too short a time. And so to Two Gun Bob, my favorite toast,

Here's to us and them like us. Damn few and they're probably dead.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Robert B. Parker 1932-2010

Cliff called me last night to tell me that author Robert B. Parker had died on Monday. After I put down the phone, I sat down on the couch and kind of stared at the wall for a bit. It was very much as if a distant relative had passed away. I haven't felt that way about the death of someone I didn't really know since my comic book artist hero Jack Kirby passed away several years ago.
If you're not familiar with Parker, he was the author of about 50 books and the creator of the private eye hero, Spenser. Even if you haven't read the books you may remember the Spencer for Hire television series with Robert Urich. Spenser first appeared in 1974's The Godwulf Manuscript. I discovered him about six years later and have read every Spenser book up until last year's The Professional, which I have yet to pick up. If you've been reading this blog for a while, you may recall that I thought the quality of the Spenser books had slipped over the last few and had decided to stop buying them in hardback with 2008's Rough Weather. I picked that one up in paperback and had planned to do the same with The Professional, but now I may go ahead and get The professional in hardback just to read it in honor of Parker. It doesn't matter what I thought of the later books because the first fifteen or so in the series remain some of my favorite books of all time.
The funny thing is, I don't think Parker's talent had really gone down hill. I think he had just been writing about one character for too long, a danger for the author of any bestselling series. The public wants more, and the books bring in a LOT of money, even if you don't particularly feel like writing them. When Parker wrote about some new characters in his Jesse Stone and Sunny Randall books, I saw flashes of the old Parker. And his three westerns in the Appaloosa series were amazing. The man could still write, right up until the end. Not that there weren't usually bits of brilliant dialog, even in the worst Spenser books. Parker excelled at dialog and the conversations between various characters in the Spenser books were often the best parts.
On a more personal level, I learned a lot from Robert B. Parker. I came across Spenser when I was just out of high school and I found that Parker was writing about things that interested me deeply. Amidst all the shootouts, car chases, and fist fights, Parker was concerned with friendship, personal honor, and with trying to hold to an ethical code in a world grown increasingly amoral. I picked up some of the way I still look at life from the writings of Robert B. Parker. I do live by a code and Parker helped me define it.
Parker influenced me as a writer as well. People have said that I write good dialog and I think I learned a lot about that from Parker, especially how to use dialog to advance a plot and to reveal character. I also learned a lot about transitioning from scene to scene and how to create a sense of pace. Parker's books move very very quickly. He definitely goes into my top five writing influences.
Parker was 77 years old. According to his obit in the New York Times he was thought to be in very good health and died of an unexpected heart attack while sitting at his desk. For a writer that's the equivalent of dying with your boots on. As a fan of Westerns, I think Parker would appreciate that.
So this weekend I will probably pick up and read The Professional, the last complete Spenser novel. One of the articles about Parker's death said there was another incomplete Spenser in the works. They'll probably find someone to finish it, but I doubt I'll read it. I joined Spenser pretty close to the beginning of his career and I think I'll exit with his creator's last completed words about him.

Monday, January 18, 2010

The First Rule

Frank Meyer has a nice home in the Los Angeles suburbs, a successful business, a loving wife, and two young sons. Then one night a crew of professional home invaders shows up and murders Frank and his entire family in cold blood. The cops think Frank may have been involved in some shady dealings since the owners of the other half dozen houses hit by the crew all had connections to drugs or other illegal activities. What the cops don't know is that the crew was led this time by a high ranking Serbian gangster. What the gangster and his killers don't know is that ten years earlier Frank Meyer had been a mercenary working with one Joseph Pike. Frank was one of Joe Pike's guys and you do not mess with Pike's guys. With a little help from his private eye pal Elvis Cole, Pike goes looking for revenge and if there is anyplace you don't want to be, it's in Pike's way.
In case you're not familiar with Joe Pike, he's the sidekick of the aforementioned Elvis Cole, the star of a dozen or so books by author Robert Crais. Through the first half dozen books, beginning with the Monkey's Raincoat, we only see Pike through Cole's eyes. Pike is an enigma, a man who wears reflective sun glasses day and night and who has forward pointing red arrows tattooed on both shoulders to remind himself to never back down. In the early books I always thought of Pike as a knockoff of Robert B. Parker's Hawk, the coolest of the cool and baddest of the bad sidekick who would do the things the hero wouldn't. In fact the first six or so Elvis Cole books are fairly standard private eye novels, well written, but not that different than the other host of P.I. books that were popular in the 1980s-1990s.
That all changed with the 2000 release of L.A. Requiem. I can't explain how much deeper and richer this novel was than the one's that preceded it. There are hints of it in the previous book, Sunset Express, but in Requiem it was almost as if Crais was reinventing both himself and his characters. In that book we begin to get glimpses of Joe Pike's past and to learn what made Pike the seemingly emotionless killing machine we'd seen in earlier books. This continued through the next several Elvis Cole novels right up until 2008's The Watchman, the first book to be subtitled a Joe Pike Novel, relegating Cole to sidekick status this time and taking us fully inside the head of Joe Pike. I've raved and raved about that book here and elsewhere and I've been impatiently awaiting the next Joe Pike novel.
The First Rule doesn't disappoint. While the plot doesn't allow for quite the emotional jolt of The Watchman, Rule still shows us things about Pike that we didn't know. I can remember being a little concerned that learning too much about Pike would lessen his mystique, but that hasn't been the case at all. There are layers and layers to the lonely, damaged man who remade himself into the man he is now.
And of course, amid all of this there is action, action, and more action. The First Rule is a white knuckle thriller almost from the word go and seldom gives the reader a chance to catch his or her breath. Can't recommend this one highly enough.

Saturday, January 09, 2010

No Sale

If you had told me a year or so ago that I would be taking a pass on a hardback collection of all the Roy Thomas/Barry Windsor Smith issues of Conan, I'd have called you crazy. I have long wanted just such a collection. But such is the case. I won't be buying the new, two volume Dark Horse collection of those tales.
When the project was first announced last year I was very happy, especially when the press release stated that the coloring for the book would be returning to the original comic book palate. I wasn't overly thrilled with a lot of the recoloring for the Dark Horse trade paperback collections of the Marvel Conan series.
Then a later press release said that Dark Horse had decided to just stick with the colors from their trades. I've already bought that coloring once, so no hardbacks for me. A lot of other comics fans I've talked to have said the same. Be interesting to see what kinds of sales the books get.


We had a little snow in Northern Georgia Thursday night. Just enough to coat the ground and then melt before nightfall so that the road I live on, a twisty little street with a lot of trees, was a solid sheet of ice on Friday morning. I didn't learn this until I attempted to go to work. There was some ice in the area of my apartment but it didn't look too bad. But when I hit the main road it was like a skating rink. I did mange to get back to the apartment complex by a different entrance, but that left me at the bottom of a very steep and very icy hill, so I had to park the truck the first safe spot I could find and leg it back to the apartment.
By the end of the day things were a bit better, and I was able to retrieve the truck. Don't know how things look this morning. I'll probably walk up to the main road after sun up and see. I assume the road is passable now, but after my slippery adventures yesterday I won't be taking any chances.

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Solomon Kane: Sword & Sorcery or Historical Fantasy?

A while back I was talking about the debate over what Robert E. Howard story should be considered the first sword & sorcery story. The contenders are Red Shadows featuring Solomon Kane and The Shadow Kingdom featuring King Kull. The Kane story was the first to see print, so my initial response was Red Shadows wins the title. BUT recently I was discussing this with some other REH fans and the question came up, are the Solomon Kane tales really sword & sorcery?
Now before you start screaming sacrilege, stop and think about it. That's what I had to do. We tend to lump authors and genres together. Most folks think of REH as a sword & sorcery author, so therefore anything he writes has to be sword & sorcery, right? Well no. Obviously those of us who've been reading his stuff for years know he wrote westerns and boxing stories and detective stories and lots of historical fiction. The S&S stuff is just his most popular and well known work. Blame Conan.
Now Solomon Kane, of course, used a sword and often fought sorcery, so once again it seems like an automatic jump to S&S, but to use another genre of fiction as an example, that's kind of like saying that every story with cops and guns and murder is a mystery. If you read a lot of crime and suspense fiction then you know that isn't the case. Quite a bit of what we consider Epic Fantasy (Tolkien clones) also contains swords and sorcery, but most S&S fans don't consider that stuff sword and sorcery. To further the crime fiction analogy, S&S occupies much the same place in fantasy that Hardboiled Private Eye books hold in the mystery field. Robert E. Howard is to J.R.R Tolkien as Raymond Chandler is to Agatha Christie. Of course, as I and others have pointed out, S&S is kind of hard to define anyway.
I think one of the stabs at defining it is what started the whole debate in fact. The folks who vote for Kull in The Shadow Kingdom as the first S&S story usually say that sword & sorcery has to take place in an imaginary world or in pre-history. Something like Kull's Atlantis, Conan's Hyborian Age, Leiber's Newhon, or Moorcock's Young Kingdoms. For them, Kane's Elizabethan age adventures wouldn't be S&S, but rather Historical Fantasy, like much of Harry Turtledove's work or Naomi Novik's Temeraire series. I can see the logic there. If someone wrote a series today about an Elizabethan era adventurer fighting supernatural menaces it would probably get classified as Historical Fantasy.
Of course there's also the school of thought that says, "It's all fantasy. Why are we quibbling about it?" These people obviously don't understand the fanboy mentality. We LIKE quibbling about it. Anyway, not sure which side of the fence I fall on yet, but it's an interesting question.

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Reading Report

Picked up Robert Ferguson's new book, The Vikings: A History. You'd think by now that I'd know pretty much everything available about Vikings, but Ferguson's book not only provided me with new facts and details, but it also gave me a slightly different view of the rowdy Scandinavians. This book helps to put the Viking age into historical perspective and also points up how much of what we accept as "history" about the Norse isn't really very dependable. Fascinating stuff.
And speaking of Vikings, I also read Bernard Cornwell's fourth novel in his Viking series, Sword Song. I've mentioned before that these days I get my sword & sorcery fix more from historical fiction that fantasy. Hardly anybody seems to be writing any bone crunching, blood and guts, Robert E. Howard style fiction in the fantasy genre, but over in the Historical Fiction aisle there is mayhem aplenty. In Cornwell's tales of his hero Uhtred, the action comes fast and furious and the historical details are dropped in painlessly as they are needed. Cornwell makes it look easy. This time out Uhtred must help Alfred the Great (whom he actually hates) retake the city of London from a couple of Viking brothers who have captured the city and therefore control the important port of the river Thames.
Currently I'm reading the next to the next to the last Repairman Jack book, Ground Zero. After this there are only two RJ books to go before author F. Paul Wilson ends his long running series. I already kind of know how things turn out because I've read Night World, the book that finishes up Wilson's Adversary series and co stars Jack, but I don't know how all the events leading up to Nightworld come about. And Wilson says he will be revising Nightworld to dovetail with the end of the Repairman Jack saga so there may yet be a surprise or two. I'm enjoying Ground Zero much more than Jack's last adventure By the Sword. The only thing I don't like is some of the connections Wilson is making between this book and his young adult RJ series. I enjoy crossovers, but there are a couple of things here that stretch credibility more than the usual coincidences in Wilson's work, but I can't say more without too many spoilers and beside it's a fairly minor thing. Overall Ground Zero is a very good entry in the series.
Next up is probably Simon R. Green's Nightingale's Lament, the third book in his hardboiled P.I. Fantasy series about the Nightside, the creepy pocket universe part of London where it's always Three a.m. and magic works. Green leans a little heavily on the Raymond Chandler school of writing sometimes, but his books have a lot of cool ideas and interesting characters and are just plain fun. However I may have changed my mind by the time I finish Ground Zero, so who knows what I'll be reviewing next.

Monday, January 04, 2010

The End of Time

Last night I watched part two of The End of Time, the final Doctor Who adventure featuring the Tenth Doctor, David Tennant. I had been a little disappointed with part one, finding the plot a bit wonky and the return of The Doctor's arch enemy The Master a bit underwhelming. Part two, however, made up for all of that. Heck the last ten minutes made up for any gaffes in the two parter. For once, warned of his impending regeneration (the way a Time Lord cheats death by replacing every atom in his body and effectively becoming a new person) the Tenth Doctor had a rare opportunity to say his goodbyes. In a series of vignettes the character, the actor, and the writer all get a chance to shine.
I will miss Tennant. Though I was very taken with the first 'new' Doctor, Christopher Eccleston, Tennant slowly won me over. I once said that Peter Davidson was 'my' Doctor, because he was the first one I saw. I'm taking that back now. Instead of having my favorite Doctor chosen for me, I am choosing him myself. I'll have trouble seeing anyone else as the Doctor in the future. I'll give the new guy a chance, and I hope the show continues to do well, but from now on David Tennant is my Doctor.

Friday, January 01, 2010

New Year's Day

And so we bid farewell to 2009. It wasn't an overly interesting year for me. Looking back over last years posts I saw that I still read a lot, though perhaps not as much as when I first started this Blog in 2006. A lot of that is because my tastes have changed. I'm not reading nearly as much crime fiction as I was back then, so interest in one of my genres has certainly declined. I'm also not reading as much current fantasy, though I do still try to keep up with the field. What I am reading is mostly non fiction and a lot of pulp related stuff. I don't feel as inclined to blog about the non fiction. Thus my posting has dropped off. Down 105 posts from 2008's total. I'm still interested in blogging though, so no worries. I'm not going anywhere any time soon.
I've no big plans for 2010 so far. I have a notion or two, and we'll see where that leads. Though not a superstitious man, I'm a little gun shy as the last two years that ended in a zero were the worst and most traumatic years of my adult life. Hoping to break that nasty trend.
Anyway, it's 2010. I saw the New Year in and went to bed soon after. At the moment there are no major issues looming, so this morning I'm cautiously optimistic, looking toward another year of possibilities.