Westlake score: Sacred Monster

Sacred Monster


The scan didn’t work so great, because the jacket is in a plastic wrapper. I got it from a dealer for the princely sum of $2, a score indeed. It’s in great shape, and appears to be unread. Curiously, it appears that a drop of blood fell on the upper edge of the pages.

One of Mr. Westlake’s non-crime books (although I’m sure there’s some crime in it) and one I have not yet read. Have any of you?

Here is the jacket text:

Jack Pine was born to be a Hollywood star. He has no morals, no scruples; he will not hesitate to do anything or love anyone if it might advance his career, get him the best roles, or project him evermore firmly into the spotlight.

And success does come, beyond the imagination of Jack’s agents and co-stars–even beyond the hopes of his boyhood friend Buddy Pal, a man who carries with him the dark secretes of Jack’s past.

Buddy stands apart, aloof: he alone truly benefits from Jack’s careening ambition and his artful, charming conniving. Others who depend on Jack may fall by the wayside, but how can the affable star be blamed?

In fact, Jack Pine can be excused anything–until he carries out the final sin, for which there can be no pardon…




Movies reviews: John Wick and Maniac Cop (plus open thread)

I’ve been taking a needed break from crime fiction as of late–it’s about 90% of the fiction I’ve read since I revived this site a few years back, and I simply had to broaden my horizons a bit for awhile. It’s still my favorite, so don’t you worry–crime fiction coverage will resume.

I have been watching more movies lately, so I’ll cover some that may be of interest. So, read on, dear reader, if you are still reading the site at all after its spottiness lately, and jump into the open thread if you like.

John Wick (2014)

I didn’t see John Wick at the theater but it recently came out on video and streaming so I caught it last night.

John Wick stars Keanu Reeves as the title character, an assassin who retired into the straight life after falling in love with a woman and one last very bloody job to extricate himself. A few years later, his now-wife falls ill and dies, leaving him devastated and aimless, going through a very-disciplined daily routine of meaningless rituals such as getting up at exactly 6:00 AM, going to bed at exactly 11:00 PM, and spending a great deal of time practicing high-performance driving in his beloved ’69 Mustang.

A surprise visit from a deliverywoman brings an adorable puppy accompanied by a note from his late wife, who had arranged this so that he would have something to love after she was gone.

A day or two later, while gassing up his Mustang, Wick has a chance encounter with some thuggish Russian fellows, one of whom wants to buy Wick’s car. Wick tells him that it’s not for sale. That night, the thugs come over to Wick’s house, catch him by surprise and beat him, kill his puppy, and steal his car.

You can imagine where it goes from there.

While I had heard good things about John Wick, I didn’t really know what to expect beyond the massive amount of gunplay visible in the trailer. I was pleasantly surprised to find not just a good revenge film, but a near-great one, possibly even nudging up into “great” territory.

Derek Kolstad’s excellent screenplay is likely underappreciated, so I’ll start with that. In a film without much dialog, Kolstad makes every line count. I imagine him taking his first draft and paring it down over and over again to reduce it to the absolute minimum necessary to advance the plot or get the desired reaction from the audience. It is also quite witty.

An aspect of Kolstad’s screenplay that I loved was the universe he created, a criminal underground with its own hotels, nightclubs, lingo, and even currency. It’s a universe worth exploring further, even beyond possible John Wick sequels or prequels.

Keanu Reeves does a great job as a man of few words and lots of action. He is either an impressive martial artist or made very convincingly to look like one (I believe the former). The supporting cast is also strong, portraying an often-quirky bunch of criminals (there are almost no straights in this movie) for Wick to engage with.

There is no shaky cam so you can actually tell what’s going on in the film’s many action scenes. The direction, by Chad Stahelski and David Leitch is visually impressive and well paced.

Good stuff, and highly recommended.

Maniac Cop (1988)

My formative years were in the days of the ’80s home-video boom, a wild time where all sorts of crazy stuff was coming out and I used to pick up anything with halfway-decent box art off the shelf of my small-town video store if it was in the horror or science fiction section. It was a fit of nostalgia for that era that prompted me to re-watch Maniac Cop the other night.

The film’s title is truth in advertising. A man dressed as a police officer is roaming New York City, slaughtering innocents and putting the citizens in a panic about their own police force. While detective Frank McCrae (Tom Atkins) chases leads, officer Jack Forrest (Bruce Campbell) is framed for the crime. Their quest for answers and for the real murderer will unearth some dark secrets.

Equal parts mystery, thriller, and slasher film, Maniac Cop isn’t a lost classic, but it’s better than the title might lead you to believe. It’s script is by Larry Cohen, the always-interesting low-budget auteur behind Black CaesarIt’s Alive!, and The Stuff, more recently known as the screenwriter for thrillers Phone Booth and Cellular. Cohen’s script for Maniac Cop is a bit lazy in spots, but it’s efficient and keeps the thrills coming.

One of Maniac Cop‘s appeals, that helps to elevate it above other most other slasher material, is its cast of exploitation veterans. In addition to Atkins and Campbell, it also features familiar faces Robert Z’Dar and Shaft himself, Richard Roundtree.

That cast, a pretty good mystery, and occasionally inspired direction by William Lustig featuring some nice stuntwork at the end, make Maniac Cop an above-average slasher flick and a solid time-waster if you’ve got eighty minutes to kill.

PS: While nominally a crime film, I probably would not have written about Maniac Cop on the site if not for the presence of Sheree North, best known to Parker fans as Buck’s wife in a very memorable scene in the film adaptation of The Outfit. I got a good laugh when someone in the film described her character, when younger, as “Not much to look at.” Oh, really?



Movie review: Taken 3


It ends here? Let’s hope so.


I’m not sure which I feel worse about–that I’ve been away for so long, or that this is my return to the site.

I put some thoughts down on the original Taken in this post. I wrote about how it’s one of my favorite action flicks, and express some fears about the future of the franchise based on the preview for Taken 2.

Oh, boy. Have those fears been realized.

My contention in the above-linked piece (and related comments) was that they could have taken Liam Neeson’s character, Bryan Mills, from Taken and put him in situations beyond a cookie-cutter repeat of the first movie with extra sprinkles. There was the potential for some good stuff there.

But that’s not what they did. Taken 2 was the same movie as Taken, only with bigger explosions (sprinkles!) and a large dose of ridiculousness.

As much as I didn’t like it, one thing Taken 2 was not was boring. Alas, that’s not the case with Taken 3, which should kill this once-promising franchise for good.

What’s wrong with Taken 3? Everything. The camerawork in the action scenes is so awful that the friend I was watching it with said that they should have called it Shaken. I’m not sure the human eye can tell what is supposed to be going on in some of those scenes. There are key plot points that make no sense at all, even by the lax standards of action movie sequels. And it is boring. I never became remotely invested in any of the characters, any of the action, any of the anything.

And if you can’t figure out who the villain is in this “mystery” about ten minutes into this disaster, it’s not because you’re not bright, it’s because you’ve already fallen asleep.

About a year ago I saw a Taken ripoff called Stolen. At the time, I made the joke that Stolen starred Nicolas Cage as Liam Neeson and S, T, O, and L as the letters T, A, and K.

How bad is Taken 3? Stolen is better.

Open thread – video file help needed & John Wick edition

Not much news since the last of these–maybe stuff is out there, but I haven’t had a chance to look for it. A huge work project, football season, and lots of great concerts coming through Austin have kept me busy.

I need some help from someone who knows stuff about video files. I don’t know if it’s medium-level or advanced-level knowledge that I need, but it’s definitely above my no-knowledge level. I don’t want to say what I need the help for right at this moment, but if you contact me about it, I think you will jump on board the project about 1/4 of a second after you read about what it is. I also don’t think it will be that time consuming for someone who knows what he’s doing. If you contact me and I tell you about it and you aren’t interested (you will be), if it’s too big a project (I don’t think it will be), or the particular set of skills I’m looking for aren’t yours, don’t worry, I won’t be offended.

Update: Video issues resolved. More to follow.

Also, has anyone seen John Wick yet? The preview looked great, and the reviews are very strong.

I don’t understand why the title follows the baffling trend of naming the movie after the main character even though John Carter and Parker didn’t do well and Jack Reacher only did OK. What the hell, Hollywood? Who is or are the idiot or idiots who think this is a good idea? What’s a better title, James Bond or From Russia With Love, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, or The Spy Who Loved Me (to pick three favorites)?

Anyway, if you saw it, tell us what you thought.

And, of course, thread is open for anything else.

The Getaway Car: the aftermath


NB: A version of this post also appears at Existential Ennui.

Trent’s been rounding up links to reviews of Levi Stahl’s excellent Westlake nonfiction miscellany The Getaway Carand if you haven’t grabbed yourself a copy of that fine tome yet, why not?—but I’ve come across a few additional bits and bobs in the wake of its publication last month which I reckon might be worth a moment of your time.

There’s a piece by William Kristol at the Wall Street Journal site (if you hit a paywall via that link, try Googling it and going in that way) titled “In Praise of Westlake,” in which Kristol, well, praises Westlake, and along the way praises Levi’s book too. It’s a nicely written article, a good primer for anyone coming to Westlake afresh, which I realize probably won’t include many people reading this post, but still—I enjoyed it.

Paul Westlake has posted a personal and heartfelt tribute to Levi’s book at DonaldWestlake.com, in which he reminisces about his dad “making a manual Smith-Corona sound like a machine gun with the hiccups” and reflects on how his father “had dry spells, he had bills, and kids, and more bills, and more kids. He had no backup plan. If he didn’t write, and get paid for writing, there was nothing else. The next line in that sequence is blank. His vocation was, and was always to be, writing. If the variety of his published works didn’t make that apparent, [The Getaway Car] surely will.” Paul also kindly nods to both The Violent World of Parker and Existential Ennui, and more importantly to a man who played a key role in the genesis of The Getaway Car, Ethan Iverson. Speaking of whom…


I’ve referenced Ethan’s excellent overview of Westlake’s oeuvre, “A Storyteller That Got the Details Right,” numerous time over the years; when I was first getting into Parker and Stark and Westlake five years ago, Ethan’s guide proved indispensable, and I still look it up on a regular basis. And just the other day when I was doing so again I realized Ethan had updated it, adding his blog post from April 2014 about what he and and Levi found rooting through Westlake’s attic, and further embellishing the piece here and there. Even if you’ve read Ethan’s essay before, I heartily recommend reacquainting yourself with it; almost every time I go to it I find something new—in this instance, literally.

News roundup for 2014-10-11 (open thread–The Equalizer and Gone Girl edition)

As with the last one of these I posted asking for opinions of A Walk Among the Tombstones, this time I’m interested in your opinions of a couple of other recent crime flicks, The Equalizer and Gone Girl. The next few weeks are going to be busy for me, so I’m not sure I’ll get a chance to see either or both of them in the theater. Should I make an extra effort or will video be fine?

Thread is open to chat about this or anything else.

Movie review: A Walk Among the Tombstones

A Walk Among the Tombstones - Cover of the Hard Case Crime movie tie-in edition

Cover of the Hard Case Crime movie tie-in edition

A Walk Among the Tombstones, as many of you no doubt already know, is based on the novel by Lawrence Block, the tenth in his series about alcoholic/recovering alcoholic (depending on what book) private investigator Matthew Scudder. Scudder is unlicensed, occasionally doing “favors” for “friends” who sometimes give him “gifts” out of gratitude for his favors.

AWATT  launches when Peter (Boyd Holbrook), who knows of Scudder (Liam Neeson) from Alcoholics Anonymous, asks him to come talk with his brother, Kenny.

Kenny’s wife Carrie has been kidnapped, then murdered despite him paying ransom. Despite this harrowing tale, Scudder at first refuses to help, in part because Kenny is a narcotics trafficker. Needless to say, Scudder does get involved, and away we go.

If you’ve read any of the Scudder novels, you know what a Scudder novel feels like–the atmosphere, the darkness, the general ugliness of the universe he inhabits. Director Scott Frank, shooting his own script, captures that ably. AWATT is a Matthew Scudder movie, not just a movie based on a Matthew Scudder novel (as, reportedly, Eight Million Ways to Die is). I have not yet read the novel (I’m reading them in order and not there yet), so I can’t say how close the script hews to the source material plot-wise, but it hews very closely to the spirit of the series*. That in itself, as exasperated Parker fans know, is quite an achievement.

The always excellent Neeson is perfectly cast as Matthew Scudder, and the supporting actors also do a fine job. A friendship between an older white man and a black youth has a high risk of corn (“You’re the man now, dog!“), but there isn’t a kernel of it in Scudder’s relationship with T.J. (Brian “Astro” Bradley).

Scott Frank’s script and direction are similarly top-notch, perfectly paced for the brooding thriller this is. The man knows how to do crime right, which may mean we missed out when the TV pilot he wrote and directed based on Charles Willeford’s Hoke Mosely for FX did not get picked up. (Can we please see it, at least?)

Unfortunately, A Walk Among the Tombstones underperformed at the box office, possibly because it was wrongly perceived as Neeson doing Taken again without actually calling it Taken, meaning a sequel is unlikely. It also means it won’t be in theaters for much longer, so get out there and see it while you still can. And if you miss it, put it at the top of your TBW pile when it comes to video and streaming. It’s a film worthy of Lawrence Block’s Matthew Scudder novels, and that’s high praise indeed.


*There is one important change (and if you haven’t read the series or seen the movie, I promise this isn’t a spoiler). Scudder’s origin story is condensed and altered due to filming book ten of the series. In the novels, Scudder’s accidental killing of a seven-year-old girl leads to his descent into alcoholism, or at minimum takes him much deeper into it. Scudder does not give up booze until several entries into the series. In the movie, it is the child’s death that inspires him to kick.

News roundup for 2014-09-20 (open thread–A Walk Among the Tombstones edition)

It’s been a couple of months since I did one of these, so let’s chat a little.

I am particularly interested in the opinion of anyone who has seen A Walk Among the Tombstones based on the novel by friend of Donald Westlake (and occasionally the VWOP!) Lawrence Block. I’m booked solid this weekend but am planning on seeing it Wednesday with a review to follow.

Westlake Score: All the Girls Were Willing

Marshall_All-the-Girls copy

NB: A version of this post also appears at Existential Ennui.

I might not have written about Donald E. Westlake much of late—just one post in the last five months, an outrageous state of affairs for which I can only apologise, especially to Violent World of Parker readers (still, at least Trent’s back now)—but Westlake is never too far from my thoughts. For instance, a few months back I reread the first three Parker novels, gaining a new appreciation of the stripped-back, stylized brilliance of the second book in particular (The Man with the Getaway Face was already one of my favourite Parkers but I’m now of the opinion that it’s the best Parker full stop), and I’ve recently read a couple of later Parkers too; I may write something about some or all of that at some point.

And I’m still picking up the odd Westlake Score when I come across something interesting. Like the one up top: All the Girls Were Willing by Alan Marshall, published in paperback by Midwood/Tower in 1960. Westlake’s fifth novel under the “Alan Marshall” alias, it’s also the second of three books starring ladies man/wannabe actor Phil Crawford, the other two being Backstage Love (Monarch, 1959; reissued in 1962 as Apprentice Virgin) and Sin Prowl (Corinth). I scored a copy of Backstage Love four years ago but noted at the time that I had no intention of collecting any others of the sleaze efforts Westlake wrote under a variety of pseudonyms in the late 1950s/early 1960s; while their scarcity—especially in the UK—does make them attractive to the Westlake collector (i.e., me), they’re of decidedly dubious literary merit. Since then, including All the Girls Were Willing (and one other sleaze title I’ve yet to blog about), I’ve acquired another four of the buggers, which only goes to show (yet again) what a hopeless case I am.

All the Girls Were Willing was an eBay win, so in my defence I suppose I could say that I was swept up in the excitement of the auction; plus I didn’t end up paying very much for it, and the cover art on this first printing—the novel was reissued in 1962 with different cover art under the title What Girls Will Do (Midwood #166)—by an uncredited Paul Rader, is rather nice. Question is, inveterate collector that I am, now that I own the first two instalments in the Phil Crawford trilogy, do I try and collect the third one, Sin Prowl, which is the scarcest one of all? The inevitable answer being, with a weary sigh of resignation: probably, if I ever come across it. Er, so to speak.

Marshall_All-the-Girls-back copy

The Donald Westlake/Joan Rivers connection

Joan Rivers
Here’s an interesting story I discovered amongst the stacks of articles marking the passing of Joan Rivers.

It’s told by Roger L. Simon, novelist and screenwriter. Simon is best known as a novelist for his series of Moses Wine detective novels (which, I’m ashamed to say, have never made it off my TBR pile despite being on there for a decade or more), the first of which is The Big Fix. Simon also wrote the screenplay to the movie adaptation of The Big Fix, which came out in 1978 and starred Richard Dreyfuss. (Incidentally, Simon started on the Left, but developed into a sort-of conservative, while Dreyfuss stayed very firmly on the Left. Despite this political difference, Dreyfuss was kind enough to write the introduction to the latest edition of The Big Fix.)

As a screenwriter, Simon’s most famous credits are likely Bustin’ Loose, starring Richard Pryor, and Scenes From a Mall, starring Woody Allen and Bette Midler, directed by the recently-passed Paul Mazursky.

It was the former that got Simon this gig:

It’s the very early eighties and, as it goes in Hollywood, I’m in one of my intermittent hot periods, having just written Bustin’ Loose for Richard Pryor, ergo the powers that be thought I could be funny. (I’m not altogether sure they were right.)  I got what was then a dream job, writing a script for Lily Tomlin. The premise was that Lily would play a “psychic detective” based on an Italian-American woman in New Jersey who was then doing clairvoyant investigations for the police. I met the woman. Lily told me she wanted me to write her as if she were Al Pacino. Cool, I thought.

It’s a very Hollywood story, and, rather than steal the whole piece, I’ll let him tell it here.  The short version is, Tomlin got fired because the Powers That Be didn’t think she was a box office draw. Instead, they hired Joan Rivers. Simon went to meet with Rivers and it didn’t go well. Rather than being allowed to do rewrites with Rivers in mind, he was removed from the project.

The end of the story?

Joan had the good taste to hire the late Donald Westlake, one of the finest mystery writers in America, to rewrite me. But as you may not be surprised to learn, as with many Hollywood projects, the movie was never made.

So there’s a lost Westlake screenplay for someone to track down!

Rest in peace, Joan Rivers.