Saturday, April 20, 2013


 By Kirby Carr (Kin Platt)
(Canyon Books, 1974)

A great cover and title conceal a weird but mild grindhouse novel. The ridiculous premise features the theft of blood, mass killings of mafia members, and an evil transcendental meditation center that is implicated. Korean and Vietnam vet Mike Ross works days as a detective and nights as a vengeful, kill-happy bad guy hunter named The Hitman. And that is his name. He kind of insists on it and most of the characters oblige him. Such dopey behavior permeates this book.

Our hero, who’s really an asshole, stumbles across a murdered girl (not Cindy Castle) who seems surprisingly lightweight. This turns out to be because blood has been drained from her. This sets off The Hitman, who decides to get his anger out on some mafia types that seem to be tied to her murder. Also, he needs an excuse to kill people and this is as good as any.

This is the kind of book that equates any access to Asian countries to the white man learning all methods and variations of martial arts. It’s as if the author looked up “martial arts” in his Encyclopedia Britannica, strung a bunch of them together, asserted that The Hitman had trained in them and called it a day. Like Remo Williams in the far superior Destroyer series, Mike has an old Asian sage who teaches him in the ways of killing. This relationship is not interesting, nor is it properly explored. There is the obligatory accidental racism that always happens when an author shows no intellectual curiosity toward ethnic groups. Instead, the relationship is a caricature of the wise, old Asian and the overheated American.

The view of the opposite sex is not difficult to discern. Take, for example, this quote about a mafia Don's son and his reason for not learning the family business quickly: "Little Augusto went to bed with cunt. Woke up with cunt and played around with cunt every day of his fucking life. It was a wonder the jerk was still alive!" In fact, for some unknown reason, every reference to Augusto uses the word "cunt" to refer to a woman. Literally every one. I went back and checked, I thought it was so weird. Other derogatory and demeaning words are allowed for other characters, but Augusto only gets "cunt".

It also is one of those “out of touch with the kids” books. Mike Ross dislikes "hippie Venice" because of the drug culture. He has a similar disdain for meditation and yoga. We never know what Mike Ross enjoys except for killing. But there isn’t that much joy in it. He's not extra-sadistic or gleeful when he murders. What this series needs to do is go all the way in. Like the sadly short-lived, hyper-violent “Gannon” series by Dean Ballenger did.

The first 3/4 of the book is the tried and true man-against-the-mob plot, played out with only mild enthusiasm. The last 1/4 is a detour wherein the reader is supposed to be surprised and riveted. I found myself annoyed. Why was this fun missing in the first 150 pages? Though it is more fun than the rest of the book, the ending continues with clumsy and illogical action. Near the climax, a mafioso is hiding out in the top five floors of a hotel. All The Hitman does to gain access is to knock on the door and say, "room service". Twice! And the only thing he needs to break into another gangster's house is a credit card. That wasn't even believable when this was written! Furthermore, there are lots of characters and plot turns (not twists), but it all seems meaningless and arbitrary. The "surprise" ending is only a surprise because none of the important characters have been introduced earlier!

Will I read another one? Yes. This series has potential for being good, over-the-top, out-of-touch, casually racist fun/bad. One crucial bit of awfulness that I loved was that the title of the book is the last line of the book.

Thursday, April 18, 2013


I blew it. I stopped following Roger Ebert's example. Roger started writing for his local Urbana, IL paper in his teens. After moving from to Chicago, he quickly became part of the city's legendary Chicago newspaper scene, drinking in the company of legends like Mike Royko and Studs Turkel. From there, he would be known to the rest of the country from the unmatched pairing with Gene Siskel on "Sneak Previews" and then "At the Movies". Eventually, people with only a casual interest in cinema knew who Roger Ebert was. Those who didn't even go to movies would use the term "two thumbs up" to describe a great thing. After he revealed his cancer and lost his speech to it, he became more prolific and eclectic a writer than ever before. He wrote about anything that piqued his interest; be it movies, politics, or rice cookers (the latter becoming the subject of an entire book of his!). Roger's wife Chaz, who he met in middle-age, seemed to be the perfect partner for him. They never appeared to be anything less than permanently smitten with each other. Roger's essay on his love for Chaz ( is as romantic an ode as I have ever read. His post-cancer writing life was made up of the most varied, joyous, and tender collections of essays that I can imagine. The thread that seemed to go through all of them was a profound sense of gratitude for his life.

The details of his biography are as wonderful as the ultimate arc. He was invited by the late, great big boob worshipper and generally underrated filmmaker Russ Meyer, to write a screenplay for him. Meyer hired Ebert simply because he had enjoyed reading the young critic's newspaper reviews. The bacchanal that followed Russ and Roger around as they hung out at pools with starlets while Roger dutifully typed out pages is legendary in Hollywood history.

I wanted to be Roger Ebert before I even knew any of the details of his life. His written film criticisms revealed a wealth of interest in areas far beyond just movies. His guest appearances (usually with Siskel) on talk shows showed that he was a kind man with a sharp, funny mind and an opinion of just about everything. I really identified with that last part. I became enamored with the Cannes Film Festival at an age when I didn't know where Cannes was, simply by reading his accounts of covering the films that premiered there every year. When I finally was able to travel there myself, I felt instantly familiar because of the education I had received from reading Ebert's diary entries all those years. I lately wanted to be him because of his continuously prolific and still important writing. Also, I wanted to have the kind of partner in life that he seemed to have in Chaz. To the very end, Roger Ebert was significant, fully engaged, and most importantly, loved by his beloved.

I wanted to be Roger Ebert, but I blew it. I started out okay. When I was 15, I walked into the newsroom of the Daily Columbian in Vancouver, WA and told the editor-in-chief that he should hire someone like me to be a film critic. After all, I argued, most of the movies reviewed by his paper were aimed at people closer to my age than that of his regular critic. I pointed to the soon-to-be released Stand By Me as an example. Before the movie opened, I was a published writer in a real paper that gave a kid like me way more space than I had any right to expect. Then, as fate would have it, my family moved to a town that didn't care much about my adolescent reasoning for being on the staff. I made a comeback of sorts when I was the film reviewer for my college newspaper (University of Oregon's Daily Emerald). When I finally made it to LA in my mid-20s, I just figured I was too old to get a job as a critic that would pay all my bills. I went on to write some scripts and make a little money on the side with writing, but never a living. I still write, but it's been a while since I've had such youthful ambition. The decision (or indecision) to stop writing film criticism is one of my great regrets. I forgot to do what Roger would have done. 

Maybe it's not too late to follow Ebert's example, though. Maybe in the next half of my life, I will find a love that will inspire me forever, as Roger did with Chaz well into his years. Maybe my writing output will blossom to be more prolific and varied than it ever has. Maybe the existence of my writing will inspire others. Now that his life has completed, I can say with assurance that I still want to be like Roger Ebert. 

Friday, June 1, 2012

Ross Macdonald: The Way Few People Write

Every so often, I read an author who is so good that my emotions move from the joy of the experience to despair that I will never be able to write this well. Ross Macdonald is so evocative, smart, and emotional in his delivery of a private eye story that I feel perhaps I shouldn't even try to write a detective novel. Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and Ross Macdonald were often called the "holy trinity" of American crime writers. Their respective stories did resemble each other in that they often stripped bare the veneer of Southern California perfection revealing savage and broken people. You might say they all wrote "Sunshine Noir". The characters and stories were always in a cloud of immorality, amorality, and the occasional bit of hope. But that hope often came in the form of a character who would be snuffed out by the cruel and inevitable wind of the dark world in which the stories existed. There is much to like about all three writers and they definitely possess their own voices. But after having read only two Ross Macdonald books, I think he is my favorite.

"The Way Some People Die" is not just one of the best titles of all time, it is also one of the best hard-boiled stories I've ever read. Written and set in post-war Southern California (with one trip to San Francisco), it is the kind of tale that sweeps the reader away into a world that is expertly drawn and populated with characters who you feel you've known all along. Starting as a missing person mystery, it quickly becomes about drugs, murder, betrayal, and the insidious and common nature of selfishness in almost everybody. There is something profound and quotable on nearly any page. Descriptions are so good, they may be worth more than the proverbial Thousand Word Picture. But it is quick and forceful. He doesn't waste any words. And just as he knocks you off your feet in setting the stage, he delivers dialogue that is so fresh, you feel like you are in the room. The voices are clearly delineated and the characters are not vague types or cyphers. I have more than fifteen Macdonald books that I have not yet read. According to many critics, "The Way Some People Die" is a good example of his early work but not generally regarded as one of the absolute best. Wow. I can't imagine reading something better right now.

Friday, May 25, 2012

BLOOD AND JUICE: It's What's for Breakfast, Lunch, and Dinner

Dean Ballenger, an effective and reliable pulp writer with decades of experience in men's adventure magazines and books, was engaged by Manor Books to write the Gannon series, the first of which, "Blood For Breakfast", was published in 1973. The series lasted only three books, but it is one of the most over-the-top and hyper-violent in the genre that is classified as Men's Adventure. Filled with gory killings of bad guys and hyperbolic descriptions of the crimes that make their deaths not just necessary but righteous. Most books that fall into this general category are militaristic in nature but the Gannon series is more akin to a Lee Child book than a Tom Clancy one. However, that's a bit like saying gore-meister director Lucio Fulci's "Contraband" is more like "The Godfather" than "Platoon". It is really not like either one. Mike Gannon is a tough guy from Seattle who comes back home to Cleveland after his sister is brutally raped by a gang of rich kids out for kicks. Gannon basically comes back to town with the expressed purpose of dealing out violent retribution to the vile perpetrators of the crime. Along the way, he also finds several other people deserving of his vengeance and their own bloody demise. There are a few distinguishing features in the book that stand out to me. First, is Ballenger's use of slang. Gannon doesn't beat guys up, he scrags them. I had to look that one up to be sure, though the meaning is clear in context. There's plenty of scragging going on, usually with the assistance of his trusty spiked brass knuckles. Blood is just as often called juice. Money is called cake. The sex scenes seem completely obligatory and Ballenger writes them as if in protest, they are so meaningless. But violence is the reason the reader has his eyes in the pages of the book, and Ballenger is adept at delivering the vicious goods in that department. Most surprising to me, though, was the generally left-wing nature of the book. Men's Adventure, as a genre, is almost always right-wing if politics are involved. But in "Blood For Breakfast", the reader is constantly reminded that the reason the bad guys are getting away with their crimes if because of their wealth and political connections. Mike Gannon lectures rich guys on the ease with which they step on the working man. Right before he beats them to a pulp and/or kills their sorry asses. At one point, Gannon reminisces about how valuable the G.I. Bill was for his father. Books like these rarely take time to expound on the value of government social programs, you can be sure! There actually is potential in "Blood For Breakfast" for a more substantial story. There is a hint of real conflict between Gannon and his father. Also, there may have been something interesting if Ballenger had done more with Mike and his sister, who is traumatized by her rape. However, none of these roads are traveled in favor of Gannon quickly moving from one violent conflict to another. Though it may seem repetitive, Ballenger is giving the crowd that likes this stuff plenty to feast on.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

What the Hell is This Crazy Book and Who Wrote It?

The world of sleazy, low-rent, talent-sucking paperbacks resulted in a lot of interesting stories. Not just the ones between the covers. The real-life tales of the people who made them, rival and often surpass anything contained in the outlandish hi-jinks and exploits of the characters on the pages within. A writer of these books was making a bet on himself that his work on a sexy book about suburban swingers for Reed Nightstand Books, published under a pseudonym, might somehow lead to a deal with Random House to publish that Great American Novel he has in his head or in a drawer at his desk. But most of these bets were lost. Most of these writers either spent their lives toiling in some measure of obscurity or found a different career. Only a handful of people like Donald Westlake, Harlan Ellison, or Lawrence Block made it to literary heights. And William Knoles; aka Clyde Allison and Clyde Ames was not one of the fortunate ones. But before I get to the end of his real story, let me tell you about the one he wrote (this time as Clyde Ames) that I just read.

Gorgonzolla, Won't You Please Come Home is just as aggressively silly and bizarre as its title. The plot involves Eva de Struction, agent for Super-Villainous Organization OCTOPUS-E doing battle with Agent 0008, Al Fresco, from inside a giant mechanical movie monster named Gorgonzolla. The book explains they couldn't use their original choice, OCTOPUSSY, because they were threatened with a law suit by a certain British spy. See what I mean? Oh, and Eva hangs out with a bevy of busty beauties with names like Honey Soit, Bette Noir, and Aqua Long.The only male in the metallic behemoth is Albert, her horny pet gorilla whose internal dialogue about how much he wants to have sex with Eva is helpfully described in the book. Much of the book is sideline discussions. There are characters that show up just to say something quippy, and then they're gone. Knoles is writing below his abilities in this book. He dutifully includes the cheeky sex scenes (fairly chaste by today's standards) that were required of him by his editor. He seems clearly bored by them. But he uses that boredom to make them ridiculous and far more interesting to read that most of the scenes like this in books like this. As the book begins, we see Eva in her opulent apartment, which comes complete with a fire pole that leads to her bed, terribly upset that she is getting to the obscenely advanced age of 21. Knoles makes nearly everything that is physical; sexual. A girl will be described as having a "voluptuous finger" or a "shapely nose". The story takes ludicrous twists and turns. It starts out in Cannes with Gorgonzola being used as movie promotion at the film festival before Eva takes it over and submarines the thing to Malibu, where she proceeds to wreak destruction (what else?) throughout LA. The brilliant thing about this book is that everything that should be bad about it turns out to be fine. I should be annoyed at the complete absence of logic and yet, I'm not bothered. The world's dumbest spy in the world's most nonsensical plot seems to be authored by a guy who knows what he's doing. The sex scenes, which are not sexy, should bother me for that fact. Instead, I find his funny take on the scenes more satisfying than if he had tried to make them serious. Most sex scenes in books like this are not successful turn-ons, anyway. It all plays out like a fever dream of a horny teen-aged virgin. There's lots of attention to sex, but no real understanding of what it is. Then the book ends abruptly, as if Knoles reached his word quota and stopped typing. 

Sadly, Knoles real story ended in a similar way. Apparently tired of the life that he had toiling away in pen-name obscurity writing sex novels for low pay (many more pornographic than this one), he killed himself at age 46 by cutting his own throat. Now I didn't know him, of course, but I am sad for myself that I won't get to read more insanely dopey adventures of Al Fresco.

Friday, March 16, 2012

The Teen Sex Comedy Based on a Book That Wasn't

If I didn't already know, and someone told me that the book "Philly" was turned into a movie, I would have said something like, "Well that's gotta be one pervy movie." I might add, "And what the hell did they do about the crazy shit at the end." The answers are that Private Lessons is a pervy movie and they totally ignored the dark ending. Probably a good move. It's what makes the book worth reading and it kept the movie in the slick, sleazy environment that it needed to be in order to be a commercial success. It must be noted that the author of the book, Dan Greenburg, is credited on the film screenplay and must have, on some level, agreed to the changes made.

For the first part of the book, it is often nearly word-for-word and scene-for-scene what's in the movie. Philly is a young teen (14 in the book, 15 in the movie) who finds he has ridiculously easy access to the nudity and sexuality of his new nanny/housekeeper, Miss Mallow. His airline pilot father is rich and often away for long periods of time and his mother has been dead for a long time. A plot involving money and scamming Philly by Miss Mallow and the chauffeur develops between scenes of dopey teen wish fulfillment. In the book, the chauffeur is a guy Philly identifies as "Lester the Fruit" who gives off a queer and bad vibe to Philly. Miss Mallow is in her early 40s (Sylvia Kristel, as the character, was in her late 20s when this was filmed).  The book is an easy and laid-back teen novel at first. Nothing great, but readable. Sort of "Are You There God, It's Me, Peeping Tom". 

Suddenly and unexpectedly, it turns into something far more dark and emotionally fraught than what it seemed to be developing into. For one thing, in the book, Philly is a dumb kid. Not just young but also dumb. He has no real sexual experience and his ideas are immature even for a 14 year-old. The film takes predictable turns as it exploits the sexual moments in the book. But the book is what happens as a result of those encounters and the movie ignores them. That's where what is creepy and fascinating lies. The movie doesn't want, or seem to need, these complications. The original story is a novella at just over 150 pages, and won't take longer to read than the movie is to watch. Because Sylvia Kristel is so beautiful and the movie has some squirm-inducing scenes, I still recommend watching it for those who are into that sort of thing. (Full disclosure: I'm into that sort of thing) But the book "Philly" is where you will find the real interesting experiment in storytelling.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Ladies of the Valley - Book Review

Sometimes I read a book and feel like I'm getting a snapshot of the writer's state of mind as he wrote. If that's the case for Herbert Kastle, when he was writing Ladies of the Valley, he is one dark guy. If you thought Jacqueline Susann brings the show biz sleaze, you will not be prepared for this. The plot has all the trappings of a Harold Robbins or Jackie Collins romp. But only superficially. Bouncing between characters and their perspectives, Ladies of the Valley tells the tale of a mainstream big-budget Hollywood movie that is to feature hardcore on-screen sex from the stars. Written in 1979, this was actually a fairly common point of discussion around Tinseltown. Coming off of the brief moment in cinematic history called porno chic, when upstanding, regular people and even couples would stand in line to see Deep Throat or The Opening of Misty Beethoven. The success and seemingly respectable nature of the public response to these films had established filmmakers wondering if they could get away with doing such a thing with established actor's outside of the porn world. In fact, there are many people who claim that Stanley Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut had originally been intended to the auteur's first pornographic movie when he contemplated filming it in the mid 70s.

But back to the book. The characters that populate this world are all selfish, loathsome, and void of empathy to the point of sociopathic behavior. There's a twelve-year-old boy who is brutally and casually raped by a man in this book and even the kid is annoying and hateful. The sex scenes are either clinical or vicious with no instance of love making anywhere in sight. Sex and violence are simply consumables to these characters. All that said, it is a compelling book. It's not carefully conceived and could (and probably should), at 500+ pages, be at least 150 pages shorter. Herbert Kastle knows how to shock and entertain the reader even if the characters are downright casual in their depravity. You will likely feel dirty while reading this book, which I'm sure is the intention. He writes in such a way that you want to hang on until the end even if you feel like you are craning your neck at a crime scene of vile people and untenable situations and behavior. The only character that has a sliver of likability is the one that I think Kastle might have based on himself. Aside from the parade of depravity that keeps on churning, this is the only character with an interesting perspective. It's a screenwriter whose career in TV and movies has been nothing more than the reason for the writer's current state depression. He drinks and smokes too much. He's being betrayed by his wife and his talents remain underutilized even as he patches together a career. There is no happy ending in sight for this guy. And that's not a spoiler alert. It's clear from the beginning, there are no characters headed for bliss. Herbert Kastle had an interesting writing career that went from science-fiction in the 50s to the over-heated potboilers he sold later in life. He also took a layover in Hollywood as a writer for some TV shows with no great successes. Another aspect shared with the writer in Ladies. Am I making presumptions? Sure. There is not a lot of biographical information that I have found yet on Kastle, but he published around 20 novels over a thirty-year span, with his last only being published overseas in 1982. He died in his early 60s in 1987.