News for week ending 2018-03-17 (open thread)

Hey, all! Mickey Spillane’s 100th birthday just passed, so I’ve linked the best pieces I found on that subject. Some other good stuff as well. Have a great week!

  • Dan Marlowe’s The Name of the Game is Death reviewed at Paperback Warrior: ->
  • Friday’s forgotten books – 3/9/18: ->
  • RT @wallacestroby: On what would have been Mickey Spillane’s 100th birthday, here’s the obituary I wrote for the July 18, 2006:
  • RT @jpwrites1: Today marks the 100th anniversary of hard-boiled fictionist Mickey Spillane’s birth. By way of celebrating, The Rap Sheet has posted a definitive interview with his friend and now-frequent collaborator, Max Allan Collins.
  • Bradley Cooper supposed to star as Matt Helm. We’ll see if this makes it further than his Mack Bolan, Executioner project ->
  • “Older readers of Cinema Retro may remember the Miller Lite TV commercials in which Spillane spoofed himself.” I’m an older reader! <Sigh>. Anyway, Raymond Benson pens a review of Mickey Spillane on Film, by Max Allan Collins and James L. Traylor.
  • Andrew Nette at Pulp Curry: The heist always goes wrong, part 4: 10 more heist films you’ve never seen: ->


Book and movie review: Invasion U.S.A.

In 1985, Cannon Films, the legendary studio behind a load of mostly bad but often fun low-budget films, released the Chuck Norris vehicle
Invasion U.S.A. The film was reviled by critics–Roger Ebert gave it a whopping 1.5 stars, while Leonard Maltin gave it the notorious BOMB rating and called it “Repellant in the extreme.”  In the shoot-’em-up ‘80s, though, who cares what critics thought? The film was a hit, doing especially well in the emerging home video market, and would have had a sequel had Chuck Norris been interested. (The script for the sequel eventually became Avenging Force, with Michael Dudikoff in what would have been the Chuck Norris role.)

The Book

I had never seen Invasion U.S.A., but remember when it came out and was aware of its reputation. So imagine my surprise when I came across a couple of articles that said, essentially, “The novelization of Invasion U.S.A. is actually pretty great.

That intrigued me, so I tracked down a copy and read it. And, yes, it’s actually pretty great.

The plot is rather ingenious. This isn’t a classic military invasion a la Red Dawn. Instead, the Soviets, in collaboration with a host of terrorists from America-hating countries and organizations, have launched a nationwide series of terrorist attacks to both destabilize the economy and turn Americans into tribes warring against each other. Terrorists dressed as Nazis shoot up a synagogue. A black terrorist dressed in the pimping-est clothes possible shoots up a country & western bar. Terrorists dressed as cops shoot up a dance of mostly Cuban teenagers. Other targets are churches, shopping malls, and schools.

Leading this effort is Mikhail Rostov, terrorist extraordinaire and evil genius. He has a key weakness, though–he is obsessed with killing Matt Hunter, a former Special Forces op who once humiliated Rostov and would have killed him had he not been under orders to keep him alive.

Hunter is now retired and living in the Miami area, catching alligators to provide to a local tourist trap for ‘gator wrestling shows. When the terror begins, his old boss attempts to recruit Hunter to fight his old nemesis. Hunter is not interested, but Rostov’s obsession causes him to seek Hunter out, and, in the process, kill Hunter’s best friend. Oops.

It is appropriate that Invasion U.S.A. was published by Pinnacle, because it is a stellar example of the men’s adventure genre. It’s got the usual tropes that men’s adventure readers expect and love–the violence (obviously), the feisty love-interest cum sidekick in newspaper reporter Dahlia McGuire, and some great twists along the way.

But what really makes it work is that author Jason Frost gives us characters. They are fleshed-out human beings, not just heroes, villains, and cannon fodder. The Cubans making a run for the promised land of America have stories, as do the teenage girls at the shopping mall, the kids at the dance, the guys at the bar. This is the best sort of men’s adventure novel, doing what makes my beloved Destroyer series so special when it is firing on all cylinders. It’s also the best kind of novelization–one that takes advantage of the printed word to add depth in a way that can’t be done on the screen, especially with this sort of material.

The ending hints at a possible sequel and series, and I wish Jason Frost (real name Raymond Obstfeld, who also wrote the Warlord series under the Frost moniker) would have found a way to spin off a series of Matt Hunter adventure novels, as was done with Dirty Harry and The Man With No Name. It could have been tremendous fun. Highly recommended to fans of the genre.

The Movie

…Aaand, then there’s the movie. Who says you can’t polish a turd? Jason Frost sure did.

Novelizations are typically based on earlier drafts of the script, as they need to be written before the film is complete in order to be released around the same time as the movie. Reading the book and comparing it to the movie suggests the following possibilities:

  • They wanted to make something a bit epic, like a smaller-scale Red Dawn, but lacked the budget and so didn’t film a lot of stuff that was originally planned.
  • They did film a lot more, but chopped it all out because the movie obviously stunk and they needed to reduce its already painful 1:47 running time.
  • Some combination of the above.

If any characterization or exposition was planned and/or filmed, it’s all gone from the released film, which is essentially just a nearly-incomprehensible bunch of strung-together action scenes and explosions. This renders the character of Dahlia McGuire, who served a real purpose in the book, entirely superfluous (perhaps a blessing, because Melissa Prophet is terrible in the few scenes she has). Why is she always there when the terrorists are striking her home turf? The book explains; in the movie, she’s just there. How does Hunter know where the terrorists are going to strike next? Sometimes they show him interrogating someone brutally to find out, other times he just shows up.

Really bad stuff. But don’t let that turn you off of a rollicking good read.


News for week ending 2018-02-24 (open thread)

Due to a home renovation project that is way over schedule, I haven’t much time in the past three weeks or so to read, much less write. Here are some items of interest from my downtime.

  • Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer comes to comics, courtesy of Hard Case Crime. ->
  • I recently learned that crime novelist Bill Crider passed away. Our thoughts and prayers go out to his family and many friends. ->
  • Brian Greene at Criminal Element reviews Help I Am Being Held Prisoner: ->
  • Darwyn Cooke’s comic book adaptation of Slayground will be released in paperback on 2/27/18: ->
  • Tom Simon at Paperback Warrior–Searching for the D.C. Man: ->
  • James Reasoner reviews The Black Ice Score at his Rough Edges blog. ->

I hope to be back soon!

Westlake score: Philip

There are a number of elements to successful book collecting. This score can be chalked up to persistence and luck.

Above is my copy of Philip, Donald Westlake’s only children’s book and among the rarest, possibly the rarest, of all of his titles. The cheapest copy I can find, one in slightly lesser condition than this one (which is in quite nice shape other than library markings and missing the dust jacket) goes for $150. They go up quickly, and copies with dust jacket are listed at $1500. I got this for $8.95, postage paid.

My guess is that the seller didn’t make the connection that “D. E. Westlake” was Donald E. Westlake, and figured it for just an unremarkable children’s book from the 1960s. So after years of searching using the title “Philip” and author “Westlake” (realizing that a copy not listed as by Donald was my best bet for an affordable copy), I finally got a hit, and finally got a copy.

I’ll have more on Philip at a later date. I wrote this post solely to brag.

  • Philip at Donald Westlake’s official site

A 1966 ad for The Busy Body

An advertisement for The Busy Body, from Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, April 1966. Courtesy of Jesse Willis at SFFaudio.

News for week ending 2018-01-27 (open thread)

This past week we added a couple of additional cover scans from Portugal. I’m almost finished adding the Portuguese covers, and they will be followed by a series of covers from a mystery country to be revealed soon. I’m also hoping to get you something really fun this week, time permitting, so stay tuned.

If you’ve never checked out the Friday’s Forgotten Books link, you should. Each week, a variety of crime fiction bloggers, as well as authors (who are also bloggers) including James Reasoner and Patricia Abbot, contribute reviews of interesting obscurities.

Come to think of it, I should contribute every once in awhile myself.

Trent goes off-topic



Added to the cover gallery: A Portuguese edition of The Hunter

Rififi (Portugal) 19??

Title translation: Hunter of Men


Added to the cover gallery: A Portuguese edition of The Mourner

Title translation: The Statuette

News for week ending 2018-01-19 (open thread)

I seriously considered posting my review of I, Tonya here at VWOP instead of at Trent goes off-topic. I thought the film was very Westlakeian with its incompetent criminals and wry, dark humor.

Trent goes off-topic

Book review: Help I Am Being Held Prisoner by Donald E. Westlake (HCC-132)

Jailed for a Joke

It isn’t easy going to jail for a practical joke. Of course, this particular joke left 20 cars wrecked on the highway and two politicians’ careers in tatters—so jail is where Harold Künt landed. Now he’s just trying to keep a low profile in the Big House. He wants no part of his fellow inmates’ plan to use an escape tunnel to rob two banks. But it’s too late; he’s in it up to his neck. And that neck may just wind up in a noose…

HELP I AM BEING HELD PRISONER is Donald E. Westlake at his funniest and his most ingenious, a rediscovered crime classic from the MWA Grand Master returning to stores for the first time in three decades.

Our protagonist is Harry Künt (with an umlaut, as he’ll be sure to tell you), an inveterate practical joker. He has been tortured his whole life by his name, which everyone mispronounces but which he won’t change because that would break his oblivious mother’s heart. His practical jokes are his way of lashing out at the world about his constant humiliation. He’s good at them, too, never getting caught. Until, of course, one day he does and ends up in jail because of it.

Once in prison, he is assigned a privileged work-duty slot in the prison’s gym, where the other prisoners with gym duty let him in on their little secret–when the gym was built, a secret passage into town was also built. This lucky crew can visit the outside world regularly.

But once they trust him with that secret, they let him in on another–they are planning on robbing two banks in town. Why not? They have the perfect alibi!

This completely terrifies Harry. He is not a hardened criminal, just a helpless sap who ended up in prison. If he tells anyone, it will go badly for him. If he doesn’t tell anyone, he is probably participating and at minimum an accomplice in a bank robbery. What will he do?

Help I Am Being Held Prisoner is a deceptively complex book in a breezy comic crime wrapper, and I can’t write too much more about it without spoiling things I don’t want to spoil. One theme, that the reader will notice right away, is that of agency. Harry is never in control of his own situation, to the point where he accidentally ends up in a situation where he may have to rob a bank. There are other important themes wrapped in and around that one, and the reader tracks their development as he tracks the planning for the robbery and other events. By its end, Help I Am Being Held Prisoner has more of an impact than one would expect in such a seemingly light-hearted affair.

Help I Am Being Held Prisoner never should have gone out of print, and it’s terrific that Hard Case Crime has brought it back. Not to be missed.