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.


News for week ending 2018-01-12 (open thread)

Over here, the big news is that you can now read the site on mobile devices. In other news…

Trent goes off-topic

TV review: “Bullet in the Face”

If you are visiting this site, chances are you like noir. If you are a fan of Donald Westlake’s catalog beyond the Parker novels, there is a good chance you also like comic crime. But what if you combined noir and comic crime?

That’s just what happens in “Bullet in the Face,” a TV series that lasted for just one six-episode season but is available on video and streaming. Max E. Williams is Gunter Vogler, a murderous, sociopathic career criminal who works for Tannhauser (Eddie Izzard), one of two mafia kingpins fighting for control of Brüteville, a city in a not-too-distant  dystopian future that reminded me of the out-of-time world in Payback (there is anachronistic technology) and the run-down cities of 2012’s Dredd.

Gunter is grievously wounded during a jewelry-store robbery by, yes, a bullet in the face. When he wakes up, he finds that he has had cosmetic surgery, giving him the face of the cop that he killed during the robbery. To make matters even more complicated, he was given this surgery so that he could pretend to be this cop while having all of Gunter’s knowledge of the criminal underworld in order to take out the organizations of both Tannhauser, who betrayed him (after being betrayed himself…it’s complicated), and Tannhauser’s rival Racken (Eric Roberts). To make things ever more complicated, he is assigned as partner to Lt. Karl Hagerman (Neil Napier), the original partner of the cop Gunter killed in the jewelry heist, who needless to say has some negative feelings toward Gunter.

Got all that?

“Bullet in the Face” is the creation of Alan Spencer, probably best known for the ’80s cop comedy “Sledge Hammer!,” a show I deeply love. There are some resemblances to that show–there’s a crazy cop, his straight-laced partner, and their boss, and of course the humor comes from the same mind. But Sledge was confined by his sense of justice–he was largely inspired by the Dirty Harry archetype, the cop prevented from giving criminals their just desserts by The System. You never know what angle Gunter is playing–he loves to kill, his gangland mistress is pregnant and he scarily wants a child to raise to be like him, and he also strangely seems to relish solving crimes.

“Bullet in the Face” is hobbled out of the gate by attempting to cram a lot of plot points (I didn’t even summarize them all) and a complicated milieu into a half hour pilot, actually only twenty minutes after commercials and credits are factored in–it really could have used an hour premier. A lot of the jokes fall flat and some just left me scratching my head. On a personal level, I often had trouble understanding Gunter’s outrageous German accent. (This is a common problem for me as I have mild hearing loss–I also have a difficult time understanding Electra on Netflix’s “Daredevil.)

So with all that, I didn’t think the series was all that good. It was an unholy mess with an iffy hit-to-miss joke ratio.

But then there’s the fact that I sat down thinking I’d watch one episode to kill some time and ended up watching all six episodes in one sitting. It is strangely compelling, never boring, and definitely outrageous. And, for the most part, it’s the outrageous moments that work the best–it’s very gory and there’s a lot of explicit sexual humor, both of which are among the funniest elements of the show. This is not Dortmunder-style comic crime.

Unfortunately, the series ended just as it seemed to be hitting its stride. The world, the players, and their dynamics were established and the story was rolling, and then, BOOM! It’s over.

This is one of the few shows or movies that I didn’t care for on first viewing that I will probably watch again, because I have the feeling that some things that didn’t work for me on first viewing may work better now that I’ve been steeped in its universe for a bit. And I may do something I almost never do and give it a third spin with the commentary on, just because I know Alan Spencer is a funny guy (he has a cameo stealing a severed head) and I’d like to hear what was going through his head when he created something as strange and out-there as “Bullet in the Face.”