I’ve been away for awhile, so a quick word before I get started. Sorry to those who have e-mailed me or tried to contact me via Twitter. I think I got back to everyone, in some cases two months late. I had a much-needed vacation, the happy occasions of two friends’ weddings, and other stuff, all good, but it kept me away from the site and associated things. Thanks as always to Nick for picking up the slack.
I’d like to spend time writing more excuses, because I don’t relish writing what follows.
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I don’t know if I’ve read more books by Warren Murphy than I have of any other writer. I do know that I’ve read more books with Warren Murphy’s name on the cover than I have of any other writer.
Lots of those were ghostwritten, because Warren created the Destroyer, one of the longest running, and to my mind unquestionably the best, of the books publishers categorized as “men’s adventure.” There are over 150 volumes. He wasn’t going to write them all. I think I’ve read about 75, and I’m not stopping until I’m done.
In the glut of what were often terrible (if sometimes fun) crank-’em-out books oriented at guys (although there are plenty of girls who liked them, too), the Destroyer stood out. They were piercing in their satire and sometimes laugh-out-loud funny, and, unlike much of the competition, the funny was on purpose.
The core of it, the heart, the thing that made it all work, was the great characters that Murphy and his partner Richard Sapir (who died much too young) created–Remo Williams, and the master of the martial art of Sinanju, Chiun. Chiun, the deadliest man alive, obsessed with soap operas and Barbra Streisand. Remo, the man whose past has been erased, brooding often, occasionally getting satisfaction from delivering justice to those who deserve it.
And let’s not forget Harold W. Smith, their straight-laced boss who doesn’t seem to have a creative thought, until you recognize that he basically invented the Internet in the 70s and was a deadly killing machine in WWII. Just make sure your paperwork is filled out correctly.
They are as much a part of me as Tarzan, Parker, Doc Savage, the Shadow, the Spider, James Bond.
Warren Murphy died (I don’t think he would like me using euphemistic language like “passed away”) on September 4 at the age of 81.
We were Facebook friends and had some back and forth in the comments every once in awhile. But I don’t claim that I knew him.
Someone who did is James Mullaney, who started as a Destroyer ghost, got cover billing eventually, and, if things go right in Hollywood (oooh, boy) will be scripting a Destroyer movie. This is what he wrote:
People who only knew Warren Murphy for his irascible Facebook persona didn’t know him at all. Yes, ask him what he thought of Rodney “Trevanian” Whitaker and you’d be combing expletives out of your hair for a week. But then there’s this…
Fifteen or a million years ago, I flew down to Pennsylvania to meet Warren for the first time. He had some business idea that required a face-to-face meeting so that he could look me in my “beady eyes.” (Life took detours for both of us, so this particular idea never saw the light of day). Way back then I was pretty much crippled by a bad back. I’d told him about my problem before I got there, but when he saw the nearly impossible time I had walking and just getting in and out of his car he offered to pay to get me to a doctor. The very first time we met in person. He meant it.
Flash-forward to about a year ago. My mom fell ill. Warren did right by his own mom, and took care of her until the end. He told me at one point that he’d changed more of her diapers than she had his. He understood how hard it was to care for a sick parent because he’d been through it. One day, a note came in the mail from Warren, along with a check for a thousand bucks. He knew it was tough, so he cut a check and apologized that it wasn’t more. That was Warren Murphy.
Warren’s health issues have been ongoing for many years, but the guy just kept chugging along. He’d grouse, he’d wind up in the hospital, he’d say it was close to the end…and then he’d turn around and seemingly get over pneumonia and cancer and everything else an overtaxed immune system shouldn’t have been able to swat back, but regularly did. Right now I’m hoping this is just him playing a dirty trick on all of us to see all the swell stuff we’ll be saying about him in the coming days.
My last correspondence with Warren was two days ago. He wrote a wonderfully positive note in which, despite his poor health, he shared his short, medium and long-term plans. I will be forever sad that he didn’t meet that long-term goal, and I will forever miss my friend, Warren Murphy. Rest in peace, pardner.
I don’t have anything to add to that, except to say that I hope you’re enjoying that Gordon’s Gin up there, Warren.
This Westlake Score may not be quite as exciting a proposition, or indeed acquisition, as the T. V. Boardman edition of Pity Him Afterwards I blogged about last week (for me anyway; who knows—perhaps it will be for you), but like that book it does complete a run of novels in my seemingly ever-expanding Westlake collection—in this instance the British paperback first editions of the Parkers.
Published by Coronet/Hodder Fawcett in 1971, Killtown is the fifth of Westlake’s Parker novels, retitled—presumably by Coronet, said new title also utilized by Berkley in the States for their 1973 paperback edition—from the original title of The Score, i.e. the one where Parker and crew take down an entire town. Now, I do, it almost (almost) goes without saying, already own four other editions of the novel—that aforementioned Berkley paperback, a 1984 Avon paperback, an original 1964 Pocket paperback and a 1985 Allison & Busby hardback—but when I spotted this copy of the Coronet edition on eBay I couldn’t resist bidding for it (and winning it, for just over four quid). Reason being, it was the only one of the sixteen Parkers published by Coronet that I didn’t own. And now I do, which means that I have a complete set of first printings of the British first editions of the initial run of Parkers.
The urge to buy a book when one already owns four other editions of that same book is the kind of madness that is probably only explicable to other book collectors (and even then…), but in my defence I should like to point out that this is quite a scarce edition, certainly in its first printing (which my copy is): I can only see one other copy listed for sale online at present, offered by an American seller at $35. Admittedly there are a half a dozen or so reprints listed on AbeBooks and Amazon and the like, but who in their right mind wants a reprint of anything? (Ahem.)
In common with the bulk of the Coronet Parkers, the cover of Killtown is a double-cover “bullet hole” affair—a design attributed to the late great Raymond Hawkey—with the shiny black paper inner cover beneath the silver card outer cover bearing the legend “Parker is in” followed by the book’s title—which shows through the bullet hole—on the front, and on the back a photo of Westlake/Stark and a brief bio. (I say “the bulk of the Coronet Parkers” because some of them were initially issued by Coronet with illustrated and photographic covers.) And like a good half dozen or so of the other bullet hole cover Parkers, on its first page it sports this character sketch:
Not sure that’s an entirely accurate description of Parker, but I do like the bit about how “in his mean, dark world he is almost a god.” Anyway, should anyone be remotely interested—or even still reading by this point—here is Killtown nestling in amongst my complete collection of first printings (plus a few reprints) of the Coronet editions:
Published in hardback in the UK by T. V. Boardman in 1965 (the year after the US Random House edition), Pity Him Afterwards was the fifth of Donald E. Westlake’s novels to be published under his own name and, until a fortnight ago (when I won this copy on eBay for seventeen quid), the only one of the eight Westlakes in total published by Boardman that I didn’t own. Doubtless that will mean little to most folk, even those with an enthusiasm for Westlake, but book collectors with an interest in crime fiction (or indeed longtime readers of Existential Ennui) will surely understand how collectable—and how uncommon and elusive—the Boardman Bloodhound Mysteries (of which Pity Him Afterwards is no. 499) can be.
A big part of that collectability is their dust jackets, almost all of which were designed by Denis McLoughlin, a body of work which comprises around 550 wrappers. (The Bloodhound wrappers are just one strand of McLoughlin’s wider body of work; he designed another two or three hundred covers for Boardman besides and drew countless comics both for that publisher and for IPC and DC Thomson.) And of the seven jackets he designed for Westlake novels (the wrapper design for the final Westlake published by Boardman, The Spy in the Ointment, was taken from the US edition), Pity Him Afterwards is, I think, the best: arresting, dramatic, darkly evocative.
That the novel itself doesn’t match up to its terrific cover is bit of a shame, because in truth it’s not a patch on the earlier likes of The Mercenaries, Killing Time, Killy and especially 361. Parts of it are quite good—it’s set in and around a summer stock theater (a favourite motif of Westlake’s; see also the pseudonymous sleaze novel Backstage Love and its two sequels, and Alan Grofield, whose background is in summer stock), and the passages dealing with the day-to-day running of said are surprisingly interesting and convincingly done. The problems come in the ludicrous characterization of “the madman”, the murderous escapee from a mental institution who drives the plot and who, preposterously, manages to get a job as an actor at the theater (and then starts killing his coworkers). He’s an utterly unbelievable creation, and the novel suffers whenever he assumes the role of point-of-view character.
Still, there’s some decent characterisation elsewhere in the novel, notably in the shape of Eric Sondgard, captain of the Cartier Isle (where the theater is located) police department during the summer months and humanities professor at a Connecticut college for the remainder of the year—a believably unassuming chap whose self-doubt almost causes him to hand off the case to the state police more than once but who through diligence and dogged determination eventually wins through. And then there’s the whodunnit aspect of the book—Westlake deliberately obfuscates which of the actors the madman has assumed the identity of—which despite my general disinterest in such guessing games I must admit did, well, keep me guessing.
Well, I reckon it’s about bleedin’ time I pulled me bleedin’ finger out and posted something at The Violent World of Parker, yeah? I mean, it’s not like I’ve exactly been prolific on Existential Ennui of late, but over here I haven’t posted anything since October of last year. (I suppose I do have the excuse of a work-related upheaval at the tail end of 2014 and into 2015, but that’s only going to get me so far as a defence.) I have, however, still been (sporadically) collecting Donald E. Westlake books, with the consequence that I’ve built up a bit of a backlog of Westlake Scores. Case in point: God Save the Mark, first published in hardback in the UK by Michael Joseph in 1968 (the year after the US Random House edition).
The fourth of Westlake’s comical “capers” (the preceding three being 1965’s The Fugitive Pigeon, 1966’s The Busy Body and 1966’s The Spy in the Ointment), God Save the Mark is a curious entry in Westlake’s British publishing backlist in that it was the only one of his books to be published in the UK by Michael Joseph. Up to this point his principal British publisher had been T. V. Boardman (who issued all eight of the prior novels penned under his own name in hardback in the UK); after this point his principal British publisher would be Hodder & Stoughton (heralded by Hodder’s paperback imprint, Coronet, picking up the rights to the Richard Stark-written Parker novels in 1967 with Point Blank). But for one book, Westlake’s principal British publisher was Michael Joseph, making Westlake a very brief stablemate of, among others, Dick Francis, Geoffrey Household, Ira Levin, John Wyndham, Adam Diment and Len Deighton (whose Only When I Larf is advertised on the back cover of God Save the Mark).
Why Joseph only published the one Westlake I couldn’t say, but the transitory partnership did at least produce rather a nice dust jacket—not as striking perhaps as Denis McLoughlin’s ones for Westlake’s Boardman-published books, but certainly better than anything Hodder would come up with. The jacket design is credited to Carol Smith, about whom I can establish virtually nothing other than she possibly designed the cover for the 1965 Viking Press edition of Michael Faraday’s The Chemical History of a Candle (originally published in 1861), bizarrely enough; but I’ve added her simple, stylishly typographical God Save the Mark wrapper to Beautiful British Book Jacket Design of the 1950s and 1960s nonetheless.
I’ve yet to read the novel itself, so I’m afraid I can’t offer a review, but anyone wishing to read such a thing can always head over to The Westlake Review, which continues to do a sterling job in reviewing Westlake’s oeuvre at length (sometimes extreme length). But I have read, and so can review, the next Westlake Score I’ll be unveiling: the only one of those aforementioned Boardman-published Westlake novels that’s heretofore been missing from my collection.
Here is some news of interest. Cops and Robbers, based on the novel by Donald Westlake and with a screenplay by him, is coming to DVD and Blu-ray on June 23.
Apparently, this had a previous DVD release that was an edited television cut, as was the prior VHS release. Kino Lorber is releasing this version, and they wouldn’t do something like that, so this may be the first chance to see the theatrical cut since it was originally in released in 1973.
I’ve never seen it, so I’ll be picking this up soon. However, I won’t have a review up any time soon because all of my movie-watching time at the moment is going to TCM’s Summer of Darkness.
Here is the blurb from the KL website.
Pandemonium and hilarity break loose when two rogue New York City cops decide to jump fence and join the ranks of crooks. This sharp-edged satire is a funny, exciting and exceptionally intelligent caper movie loaded with enough twists to keep you guessing to its thrilling end! Disillusioned with life on the force. Cliff Gorman (The Boys in the Band) and Joseph Bologna (My Favorite Year) star as two of New York’s finest decide to put their badges to use… to get into a Wall Street brokerage so they can leave with $10 million in untraceable bonds! But the plan goes awry when their deal to cash in the bonds with a local Mafioso goes sour. Now wanted on both sides of the law, the bumbling cops find themselves in a race to get out of Manhattan with their loot… and their lives! Stellar direction by Aram Avakian (End of the Road) and featuring a hilarious screenplay by Donald E. Westlake (Bank Shot) and based on his own novel.
Has it really been two months since I posted here? Jeez, folks, I’m sorry. I have had a few things going on, like taking a break from crime fiction and breaking a collarbone, but still.
I’ll make up for it a little bit with this jumble of odds and ends, and I hope to get back to posting at least once a week sooner rather than later.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
I think Americans too often take our freedom for granted, since we’ve grown up in it. But it is not the natural state of human affairs. It took tremendous sacrifice to achieve it, and tremendous sacrifice to maintain it. I am always humbled when thinking of that, most especially today.
Getting to the crime stuff, I’ll start with the sad news that artist Glen Orbik has died of cancer too young at 52. Glen is best known to VWOP readers as the artist of many great covers for Hard Case Crime.
Charles Ardai, editor-in-chief of that amazing line, writes, “Glen was a shooting star, a miracle. Losing him is like losing Jim Henson, like losing Robin Williams. Such talent. Such a cruel fate.” Please read the post in full, and see some gorgeous artwork, at Killer Covers.
Starting on June 1, Turner Classic Movies is offering a free online course on film noir.
Summer is cooler in the shadows.
We invite movie fans from around the world to join us for a flexible, multimedia investigation and celebration of film noir.
In this nine-week course, we’ll go back in film history to investigate the “The Case of Film Noir”—the means, motives, and opportunities that led Hollywood studios to make these hard-boiled crime dramas, arguably their greatest contribution to American culture.
This course will run concurrently with the Turner Classic Movies “Summer of Darkness” programming event, airing 24 hours of films noir every Friday in June and July 2015. This is the deepest catalog of film noir ever presented by the network (and perhaps any network), and provides an unprecedented opportunity for those interested in learning more to watch over 100 classic movies as they investigate “The Case of Film Noir.”
Both the course and the associated films will enrich your understanding of the film noir phenomenon—from the earliest noir precursors to recent experiments in neo-noir. You will be able to share thoughts online and test your movie knowledge with a worldwide community of film noir students and fans.
Mrs. VWOP, a film major, has agreed to take the course with me. (Things like this are why she became Mrs. VWOP.) If there are a few of you out there who would also like to take the course, let me know either in the comments or via e-mail. Maybe I’ll do a weekly discussion thread if there are enough folks to warrant it. If nothing else, it could get me posting regularly again.
Oh, and a friend of mine somehow misread this to mean that you had to watch 100 movies. Just in case you did as well, that’s not the case.
The missus and I have been watching the new Netflix Daredevil series. We have a few episodes left to go, so I won’t go into it too much as I may write a full review when we complete the season. Suffice it to say that it is very good and somewhat surprisingly very noir. I used to read the comic book on occasion in my misspent youth, and don’t recall the tone being anything like that, but it suits the character quite well. The acting, writing, and direction are for the most part superb. Anyone fan enough of crime fiction to be reading this post will likely enjoy it immensely.
Darwyn Cooke says he won’t be returning to Parker comics until 2016, but by the sound of it, I suspect it will be a longer wait than that. I get the sense that he feels he needs to recharge the batteries a bit before returning to the character. But if you like his work on Parker, you will almost certainly like his newly announced project.
Cooke’s upcoming Image Comics series “Revengeance” is a story he originally pitched to artist Tim Sale, but after five years of waiting for Sale to be available, “I told Tim, sorry, I’m taking this one for myself.”
On “Revengeance,” Cooke said, “I think the title indicates that I’m not taking it entirely seriously.” He compared it to the Mickey Spillane novel “I, the Jury,” with a “young, liberal, nonviolent sort of party guy” as the protagonist. “It’s incredibly dark. The ending of it is horribly dark. But on the way, I’d like to think there’s going to be a lot of hilarious stuff.”
The series is set in 1986 Toronto, where Cooke himself lived in his 20s. “There’s a lot of me in it,” he said. “I just kind of subtracted everything decent about me, and made everything bad about me twice as bad.”
No release date announced yet.
So that’s the latest! Again, apologies for the scant posting lately, but you regulars know that happens from time to time.
Let me know if you want to take that film noir course! It could be a lot of fun.
Gold Eagle, the division of Harlequin that published men’s adventure books including The Executioner/Mack Bolan, is being closed down after Harlequin’s acquisition by HarperCollins. I expect Mack will land on his feet somewhere, especially if the movie franchise tentatively starring Bradley Cooper gets off the ground.
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…
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 Caesar, It’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?