Wednesday, June 30, 2010

The Life of Jean Lafitte (told with marionettes)

Yes, my tale "The Mercy of Jean Lafitte" is still playing over at BEAT to a PULP, and I'm still in a Lafitte state of mind.

I took these thrilling almost-live action pics  at the Lafitte Museum in the tiny bayou town of Jean Lafitte, Louisiana. Though the figures look static here, they are actually in continuous motion, moving arms and legs and sometimes cutlasses.

This mechanical marionette show was built in the 70s and was for years a popular attraction in New Orleans. When Katrina approached, the building was thought threatened, and the puppets quickly auctioned off. High bidder was the mayor of this bayou burg.

Here's Jean at home with his pet pelican on the isle of Grand Terre, south of New Orleans on Barataria Bay. In 1812, when our story begins, this was HQ for his lucrative smuggling and privateering operation.

Jean's older brother Pierre (left) and pal Dominique You (whom some believe was an even older brother) row ashore to get instructions for their next voyages.

One of Jean's more bloodthirsty rogues in a fight aboard a Spanish galleon.

Same fight, different angle. Note the cool blood on the pirate’s hand, the deck and the shoes. Who knew marionettes could bleed?

Rene Beluche, who may have been Jean's uncle, and two of Lafitte's men split the booty.

Jean goes to the theater with a rich friend. The society babe with him is not advised of his identity, and later tells everyone he’s the most charming gent she ever met.

Pierre Lafitte is arrested and tossed in Cabildo prison.  (Don't fret, he'll soon be sprung. The Lafittes have influential friends.)  See that wanted poster? Governor Claiborne was offering $500 for Jean. On the wall at left is Jean's response - a poster offering $5000 for the capture of the governor.

The British come calling, offering Jean big bucks if he'll join their attack on New Orleans. Instead, he warns the governor and offers to help the Americans.

When the Gov refuses Jean's help, Jean drops by to reason with him.

Laftitte’s Blacksmith Shop (now a tavern and tourist trap), where legend has it that Jean met Andy Jackson. Legend is wrong, but Jackson did accept Jean’s offer of help and the two planned the defense of the city. Lafitte provides cannons, expert gunners and an enormous stockpile of ammo for the cause.

The Battle of New Orleans, later immortalized by Johnny Horton.  That’s Dominique You in the pirate hat, commanding one of the big guns. It’s said that one particular shot from this gun killed over 200 redcoats. The pirate with the do-rag is not Jean, who was toiling behind the scenes. And that guy at far right is NOT Davy Crockett.

Acclaimed as the savior of New Orleans, Jean reveals he is the same height as Godzilla.  He’s given a pardon for past crimes, but discovers honesty doesn’t pay and returns to privateering. He soon moves his headquarters to Galveston Island, scene of "The Mercy of Jean Lafitte".

Historical Note: Had Lafitte joined the British, they surely would have won the battle and been poised to sweep into the heart of the country. Though the Treaty of Ghent had officially ended hostilities weeks earlier, neither side knew it at the time. Had the British succeeded in taking New Orleans and gaining control of the Mississippi, they likely would have repudiated the treaty and continued the war - and won.

Tomorrow: The Many Deaths of Jean Lafitte
Friday: The Memoirs of Jean Laffite
Saturday: The Legacy of Jean Lafitte

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

The Face of Jean Lafitte

I'm honored to have a short story called "The Mercy of Jean Lafitte" featured on BEAT to a PULP this week, and would be further honored if you popped over there to take a look.

But first, here's a look at Lafitte* himself.

The most common image of Jean Lafitte (above) is based on an 1879 woodcut, so while it’s a pretty cool picture, it may look no more like Lafitte than I do. When did Lafitte die? We'll tackle that mystery on Thursday.

The sketch above appeared in a 1926 Galveston newspaper, supposedly done in 1819 by someone who knew Lafitte. Not impossible, but far from proven.

In the painting above, attributed to John Wesley Jarvis c. 1821, Jean is seated and lifting a cup while singing a sea chanty. It's worth noting that his face and hair resemble those in the sketch, so they may be connected. Brother Pierre is standing, filling a clay pipe. Dominque You is at right holding a little brown jug. The figure at left is thought by some to be Rene Beluche, another famous pirate of the era. Visiting New Orleans a couple of years ago, I made a special trip to the Cabildo museum (formerly a prison) to see this painting, and dang near didn’t. It's tiny, no bigger than 7 x 9", and hangs seven feet off the floor in an obscure (and very dark) area of an upper floor. To appreciate it, you’d have to be an NBA center with a high-powered flashlight. I almost asked for my six bucks back.

The anonymous portrait above hangs in a library in Galveston, and that’s all I know about it.

Lafitte's true appearance remained a mystery until 1958, when it was discovered he looked exactly like Yul Brynner.

*Among the many mysteries surrounding Lafitte is the spelling of his name. Apparently he was known to sign it both LafiTTe and LaFFite. The version with two Fs seems to be in vogue with historians, but I prefer the two Ts. "Lafitte" was the more common spelling during his lifetime and in the literature published since. 

Tomorrow: The Life of Jean Lafitte (as told by marionettes)
Thursday: The Many Deaths of Jean Lafitte
Friday: The Memoirs of Jean Laffite

Monday, June 28, 2010

My Personal West: Now Playing on Meridian Bridge

Richard Prosch was kind enough to invite me to participate in his "Personal West" series, following in the huge footsteps of Charles Gramlich, Gary Dobbs, Laurie Powers and Rich himself. My contribution will be posted sometime today on MERIDIAN BRIDGE.

In writing the piece, I discovered that my personal experience with the West mainly involved playing at (and continuing to play at) being Davy Crockett, Zorro and any number of TV cowboys.

That required a lot of toys, of course, and it seems my parents spoiled me much more than I realized. Here's a gallery of some of the stuff I remember best from my "Personal West".

Sunday, June 27, 2010

"Killer Tells All" - a complete story by Laurence Donovan

From the author of the new Black Dog collection Twice Murdered, we're pleased to present this fine tale from Speed Detective of August 1943. Ex-detective Harrigan is now editing a "true crime" magazine, and - to his surprise - actually encounters a TRUE crime.

You many click on each page to enlarge and read here, or download the story as either a Word or Works document:  KILLER TELLS ALL (Word) or KILLER TELLS ALL (Works)

58 - 59

60 - 61

62 - 63

64 - 65

 66 - 67

68 - 69

97 - 98


For twelve more well-told tales of detectives, dames and murder, Davy and I suggest you pick up a copy of Twice Murdered (reviewed HERE) from BLACK DOG BOOKS!

Saturday, June 26, 2010


Sometime today, my pirate tale "The Mercy of Jean Lafitte" is slated to be posted on the acclaimed Internet mag BEAT to a PULP, and I hope you'll pop over and take a squint at it. (And if you find it's not up yet, please take the opportunity to enjoy Patti Abbot's elegant short story, "At the Cafe Sabarsky.")

UPDATE, 5-5-12: Unfortunately BEAT to a PULP's 2010 archive is currently down. I'll post a notice when "The Mercy of Jean Lafitte" is once again accessible.

In other news, David Cranmer has announced the complete line-up for the soon-to-be-published anthology BEAT to a PULP: Round One, and I was pleased to find my name on the list. It will be an honor to be between covers with so many writers I admire. My story "The Ghost Ship" involves a crew of scurvy pirates who—well, I'll let you find out for yourself.

Here's what's coming in BEAT to a PULP: Round One:
Maker’s and Coke -- Jake Hinkson
A Free Man -- Charles Ardai
Fangataufa -- Sophie Littlefield
You Don’t Get Three Mistakes -- Scott D. Parker
Insatiable -- Hilary Davidson
Boots on the Ground -- Matthew Quinn Martin
Studio Dick -- Garnett Elliott
Killing Kate -- Ed Gorman
The Strange Death of Ambrose Bierce -- Paul S. Powers
Heliotrope -- James Reasoner
The Wind Scorpion -- Edward A. Grainger
Hard Bite -- Anonymous-9
Crap is King, a “Miles Jacoby” story -- Robert J. Randisi
The All-Weather Phantom -- Mike Sheeter
Pripet Marsh -- Stephen D. Rogers
Ghostscapes -- Patricia Abbott
Off Rock -- Kieran Shea
At Long Last -- Nolan Knight
A Native Problem -- Chris F. Holm
Spend It Now, Pay Later -- Nik Morton
Spot Marks the X -- I. J. Parnham
Hoosier Daddy -- Jedidiah Ayres
The Ghost Ship -- Evan Lewis
Anarchy Among Friends: A Love Story -- Andy Henion
Cannulation -- Glenn Gray
The Unreal Jesse James -- Chap O’Keefe
Acting Out -- Frank Bill

Friday, June 25, 2010

Forgotten Books: "Cold Death" - a Doc Savage novel by Laurence Donovan

After reading Twice Murdered, the new Laurence Donovan story collection from Black Dog Books (reviewed yesterday), I wanted to try more Donovan. So I pulled this old Doc Savage pb off the shelf.

When I was first reading Doc Savage stories, I had no idea who Kenneth Robeson was. All I knew was I liked his style, and it kept me coming back for more. Nowadays, with Lester Dent highly acclaimed as the author of most of the Doc novels, it's become fashionable to look askance at the stories known to be the work of other hands.

One of those hands was Laurence Donovan.  He was called in for when Street & Smith planned to capitalize on the magazine’s success by putting out (like the Shadow) twice a month. Fast as Dent was, he wasn’t that fast, and Donovan got the nod to take up the slack.

In all, Donovan penned nine Doc adventures, and it’s been said he was the only Doc author whom Dent did not edit or rewrite.

Cold Death is the first Donovan Doc I’ve read with the knowledge it was he - not Dent - writing, so I was on alert to see what made it different. On the whole, the answer was not much. Donovan does a fine job of emulating Dent’s style, and turns out a typically action-packed adventure.

That said, I did notice a few differences between Dent and Donovan.

First, the violence was a tad more real. Sure, lots of folks suffer horrible deaths in the Dent novels, but there’s normally an element so weird or fantastic that it seems like the stuff of comic books. In Cold Death, one innocent bystander is sliced in half by a ray of Cold Light. Another guy is dismembered. Late in the story, one of Doc’s employees - a mechanic in his private hanger - takes a bellyful of slugs from a machine gun. His passing goes unmentioned and unmoored. The Doc Savage I know would most likely have prevented this, but if that proved impossible, he would have at least been affected by it. Donovan’s Doc is apparently more hardboiled.

This sort of violence, of course, is tame for the pulps in general. If this were an adventure of the Spider, hundreds would die in far more grisly fashion. And if our hero was Operator 5, the death toll would be in the thousands. But in the Doc Savage universe, we expect our violence to be somewhat more benign.  .

Then there’s the matter of rescues. This is normally Doc’s domain. Experts could probably point out instances where Dent’s Doc is saved from certain death by chance or by the actions of his aids, but I doubt a story could be found where this occurs three times. In the first instance, Doc awakes from unconsciousness to find himself strapped to the floor of an airplane - a plane without a pilot that is about to crash into the sea. As the chapter ends on this cliffhanger, I’m thinking Zow! How’s Doc going to get out of this one? Well, it turns out he can’t. Luckily, there’s a stowaway on board, a guy who tagged along just to save Doc’s bacon.

Later, Doc and Renny are about to zapped by highly-charged electric plates concealed beneath a rug. Enter Monk, who - without a clue why he’s doing it - activates a newly developed gizmo that just happens to save the day.  And at the climactic battle with the evil mastermind’s henchmen, Doc, Monk and Renny are about to riddled with bullets when Long Tom and Ham appear unexpectedly - in manacles, no less - to wreak havoc on the bad guys.

I’m not complaining. It's actually a nice change to see Doc's aides save him rather than vice versa. Still, it seems peculiar.

My only other observation is that Monk employs the expletive “Howlin’ calamities” at least seven times. I’m pretty sure Dent first put those words in Monk’s mouth, but also pretty sure he used them more sparingly.

In poking around the Internet, I see that Cold Death is regarded by some hardcore Doc fans as the best of Donovan’s contributions to the series. This, I suspect, is because it is probably more Dent-like than the others. I’m now looking forward to trying another, maybe the one considered least Dent-like, so I can see what Donovan does when he really cuts loose.

Cold Death is back in print in one of the fine two-in-one volumes from Nostalgia Ventures, complete with The South Pole Terror and and an all-new article by Will Murray.

Sunday: A complete Laurence Donovan story from Speed Detective
Soon: A look at more Donovan Hero Pulp novels

For the original cover image, I am indebted to the great NorthernWriter site.

Today: Links to more Forgotten Books at Patti Abbott's pattinase

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Twice Murdered: A story collection by Laurence Donovan

Prior to cracking open this new collection from Black Dog Books, all I knew about Laurence Donovan was that he’d written a handful of Doc Savage novels.

Now I know better. Boy, do I ever. This book makes it clear that Donovan was a pulp-writing powerhouse.  In a career stretching from 1928 to 1948, he turned out well over 400 stories and novelettes, plus more than 50 pulp novels featuring guys like The Phantom Detective, The Black Bat, The Whisperer, The Skipper - and yes, Doc Savage. Like many of his contemporaries, he wrote whatever the market wanted, resulting in a good mix of air war adventures, westerns and mysteries. (How do I know all this? I know, thanks to Tom Roberts' groundbreaking Introduction and overview of Donovan's career, and the eye-opening 18-page bibliography of his works.)

The amazing thing is that despite this enormous output, there has never been a book published with Donovan's name on it. Until now.

All but one of the twelve stories in Twice Murdered were written during the second half of his long career, and all but one originally appeared in the Trojan line of magazines (Spicy Detective, Hollywood Detective, Super-Detective and Private Detective Stories). And that, I think, is a good thing.

By 1938, Donovan had long since mastered his craft, and writing for the Trojan mags allowed him to focus on his own characters and tell stories the way he wanted them told. And he had fun doing it. That sense of enjoyment comes through strong in every tale, and makes them equally fun to read.

Donovan’s style might be described as a cross between Lester Dent and Robert Leslie Bellem. He mixes Dent’s wry humor and rat-a-tat-tat action with Bellem’s mastery of  slang. The result is consistently entertaining, and every tale races to a satisfying conclusion. For purposes of show and tell, I've scanned a couple of title spreads from the original magazines, and invite you to sample Donovan's prose.

(click to enlarge)

More than half of the stories are in the Spicy mold. Donovan handles the required titillation as well as anybody, but because he was older and more experienced (both in writing and living) than the other Spicy regulars, his tales deliver more variety and substance.

“Death Dances on Dimes” takes us into the world of dime-a-dance halls and sleazy strip joints.  “The Snoop” thrusts a house dick into a wild shoot-out with bank robbers in a hotel room.  In “Twice Murdered” a gambling house kingpin tries to scam his insurance company and ends up dead - twice.  “Never Hire a Killer” features a private dick hired to protect a society dude’s girlfriend, unaware both dude and dame have other agendas.  In “She Loves to Murder” a self-professed “love detective” becomes the fourth side of love triangle, with deadly results.

“Footprint of Destiny” from Hollywood Detective, opens at Grauman’s Chinese Theater, where a starlet is murdered just as she places her dainty foot into the wet cement. “The Greyhound Murders” involves the dog-racing crowd and a four-legged murder weapon. The violence in “A Dame Murders Cold” appears to revolve around a dazzling Ming Dragon emerald, but actually stems from a much deeper game. And in “Two Can Play at Murder”, a disgraced ex-cop is lured into a double-murder frame, and neatly turns the tables on the mobsters.

(click to enlarge)

One of the longer stories in the book, a novelette called “Come In, Killer”, is almost Shakespearean as it plays out with mistaken identities, hidden motives and unexpected deaths. “The Man Who Came to Die” - the longest story of all - is also the strangest. As publisher Tom Roberts tells us in the Introduction, Donovan never sold to the weird mystery pulps, but this one would certainly have qualified. A detective starves himself to skin and bone to impersonate a rich guy thought to be the next victim of a clever and sophisticated insurance fraud scheme. No one in this tale is quite what they seem, and before it’s over half the cast winds up dead.

While I enjoyed every story, my favorite of the bunch was “Reagan Follows Up”, in which a newspaper editor defies his boss to go to war with the mob and expose the killer of a crusading cop. Donovan clearly identified with this guy, as Donovan’s pre-fictioneer days were spent as a newspaperman.

So. While Twice Murdered is Laurence Donovan’s first book, I predict it won’t be his last. Black Dog has finally brought Donovan out of Lester Dent’s shadow, and he won’t be going back.

For more info (and to order) visit BLACK DOG BOOKS.

For a review by James Reasoner, click HERE.

Tomorrow: A review of Donovan's Doc Savage novel Cold Death
Sunday: A complete Donovan mystery story from Speed Detective
Soon: A look at some of Donovan's Hero Pulp novels