Friday, June 29, 2012

Forgotten Books: Dashiell Hammett's Secret Agent X-9 (now playing on BBC !)

I'm rerunning this review to celebrate the all-new 4-part radio drama NOW PLAYING (for a very limited time) on BBC Radio online. The show is based on the first comic strip continuity, "You're the Top," which appears in both books shown below. How much of that original story was really Hammett's work, and how much should be attributed to unnamed editors at the King Features Syndicate, remains in doubt, but it's still a crackling good tale. Episode 1 will be available for on-demand listening only until Tuesday (UK time), Episode 2 until Wednesday, and so on, so don't delay! The link to the show is right here:

Maybe this book's not really forgotten, but since the latest edition was published 20 years ago, it's at least neglected. You've no doubt heard of the strip. Hammett plotted and wrote the dialogue for most of 1934, while Raymond continued the artwork for another year. I don't know who actually named the character, but the concept seems to have come directly from William Randolph Hearst, who wanted "the toughness of a detective like (Dick) Tracy with the the mystery of a secret operative like (Dan) Dunn."

With a team like Hammett and Raymond, you know this is great stuff. The only question is . . . do you buy the green edition (Nostalgia Press 1976), the red edition (International Polygonics Ltd, 1983) or the 1990 book (which I have not seen) published by Kitchen Sink?

Here's the lowdown on the two I have. Both books have the first continuity, a long story sometimes known as "You're the Top". Both also contain the much shorter second and third stories, "The Mystery of the Silent Guns" and "The Martyn Case". But that's where things get tricky. According to William F. Nolan, Hammett left the strip during the run of "The Martyn Case", having already submitted a plot for the next story, "The Torch Car Case".

The green book skips "The Torch Car Case" and jumps ahead to "The Iron Claw Gang" and "The Egyptian Jewel Case", two stories in which Hammett apparently had no hand.

The red book gives us "The Torch Car Case", then skips "The Iron Claw Gang" and "The Egyptian Jewel Case" to present "The Fixer", a story scripted by Saint creator Leslie Charteris.

And there's more to consider. The introduction to the green book, while not lengthy, is excerpted from a critique by Bill Blackbeard, who certainly knows his comic strip stuff. The red book has a longer and more fact-packed intro by Nolan, who surely knows his Hammett.

Which are you leaning toward, the green or the red? Well, here's one more consideration. The green book does a better job of reproducing the strips, which are uniformly sharp. Taken on its own, the red book looks OK, but side-by-side with the green the artwork looks a bit muddy.

The Kitchen Sink edition is in letterbox format (like the green book), and 206 pages (30 pages more). According to Tom Roberts, it contains all of Alex Raymond's work on the strip, which the other books do not.

These books won't lay flat enough to scan full strips, but I managed to snag a few sample panels from the green book. You may, of course, click to enlarge.

More Forgotten Books at Sweet Freedom!

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

The Leopard Couch - A new Sax Rohmer collection!

Here's another instant classic from Black Dog Books. The Leopard Couch is Volume 2 of The Sax Rohmer Library, a follow-up to last year's entry, The Green Spider. Like the first volume, this one features four stories that were never before published - at least in their complete and original form - in the United States.

But while The Green Spider featured mystery and suspense stories, The Leopard Couch focuses on the fantastic and supernatural. And Rohmer's style, which is just naturally sort of creepy, lends itself very well to this type of tale.

If you haven't read Sax Rohmer, the best way I can describe him is to say - think Arthur Conan Doyle on drugs. Even Rohmer's mundane scenes have a dreamy quality, and when he wants to create a really mystic mood, he goes all out.

It's the mood Rohmer creates - and draws the reader into - that give these stories their power. The fantastic and supernatural elements themselves are rather subtle, making them all the more believable. You'll find no zombies eating brains in this collection. Instead, people have dreams that just might explain seemingly impossible occurences. There are strange lights, sounds and smells, and maybe a set of moving footprints with no body attached. An aura of evil might fall over a house, or an object, or a person. But the true manifestation of that evil is always just out of sight, where it stretches the imagination just enough - without reaching the breaking point.

Surprisingly, given the author's long-time association with Dr. Fu Manchu, most of these stories involve the mysticism of ancient Egypt. And that's a good thing, because to me, Egypt has always rated way higher on the creepy scale than China.

Click HERE to visit Black Dog Books and check out The Leopard Couch and other lost treasures of pulp fiction.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Overlooked Films: Hop-a-long Cassidy (1935)

William Boyd made a career of playing Hopalong Cassidy. Between 1935 and 1954 he starred as Hoppy in 66 films and 49 TV episodes. But it all started right here. The original film title was Hop-a-long Cassidy, but it was renamed Hopalong Cassidy Enters for the 1946 reissue, and is more commonly known by that name today.

Normally, the first film of such a long series is quaint to look back upon, and see how much the character has changed over the years. Not so with Hoppy. Boyd's depiction springs to life fully realized, and there's almost no difference between this Hoppy and the one that made his last bow twenty years later.

Contrary to the poster above, and the colorized lobby cards below, Hoppy does not wear a green or red shirt. Right from the beginning, he sports his signature black hat, black outfit, white hair and white scarf, and rides his white horse. Boyd, too, seems timeless. He was 40 when this was this was made, but looks the same as he did at 60.

And he makes an impressive entrance. The first time we see Hoppy, he appears on horseback, on top of a hill, at least a hundred yards from the action. But he needs only a single pistol shot to knock the bad guy's gun out of his hand and save the life of another Bar 20 cowboy.

Also on hand here is Gabby Hayes. But this time, he's not a sidekick. He's more of a mentor and father figure, and is foully murdered, giving Hoppy more motivation to kick bad guy butt in the big finish. The Three Musketeers referred to in the ad above are Hoppy and two other Bar 20 hands (and Clarence Mulford characters) Johnny Nelson and Red Connors. At the end (SPOILER ALERT) they go riding off together, in search of more adventure.

Are YOU in search of more adventure? You'll no doubt find it at the Overlooked Films Round-up, now playing over at SWEET FREEDOM.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Forgotten Stories: "The Dancing Rats" by Richard Sale

As you may have noticed, I'm a big fan of Mr. Richard Sale. (If not, click HERE to peruse my posts about him.) Still, I was a bit surprised to find this story, "The Dancing Rats," in The Black Lizard Big Book of Black Mask Stories.

Why? Because Sale was not known as a Black Mask writer. I knew he'd done this tale, because I have the issue, but a little digging revealed that this, from June 1942, was his only true sale to the magazine. (Two more stories appeared at the end of the mag's run in the 50s, but they were reprints from Detective Fiction Weekly.)

Don't get me wrong. I was glad to see it in the Black Lizard collection, just like I was glad to see in BM. Sale was an important member of the hardboiled school, and it's fitting he should be represented in both places.

Still, "The Dancing Rats" (not to be confused with the Daffy Dill story "Dancing Rats" that appeared in Detective Fiction Weekly) is by no means a detective story, and only marginally a mystery, and I'm a little surprised it appeared in Black Mask at all. It's much more in tune with the war-on-the-homefront stories he was selling to Saturday Evening Post, and my best guess is that Post had more than they could handle, so Sale let this go to a lower paying market.

The tale's hero is Dr. Nicholas Adams, renown for his work with lepers, the same character who starred in Sale's 1940 non-mystery novel Cardinal Rock. (The same character also appeared in his first mystery novel, Lazarus #7, in 1942, though the doc's name was changed.) The Japanese are plotting to wipe out all life in Honolulu, and our man Nick, with his medical acumen, is the burg's only hope. I won't tell you what the plot involves, but I'll give you a hint. It ain't leprosy.

Stay tuned for more blathering about Richard Sale. I'm overdue for a re-reading of his second mystery novel, Passing Strange.

Friday = Forgotten Books = pattinase

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Shock Troops of Justice !

Tom Roberts, publisher of Black Dog Books, does us all a great service by rescuing forgotten stories by pulp legends like Lester Dent, Frederick Nebel and Talbot Mundy. But he also brings to light a lot of great work by guys I never heard of - like Robert R. Mill.

Shock Troops of Justice collects twelve stories that appeared in Blue Book between 1935 and 1938, all focusing on Duke Ashby of the F.B.I. The most shocking thing about them is that they were far more realistic than other crime stories of the day. In a preface to the first story, Mill says he met personally with J. Edgar Hoover and gained full access to the inner workings, methods and case files of the F.B.I. How true that is I don't know, but he sure seems to know his stuff.

While these stories are fiction - and well-written fiction to boot - the criminals, the crimes and the methods Duke Ashby and his fellow agents employ all ring true. I picked up the book intending to sample the first story, and got so interested I read three in a row. These are tales, I have no doubt, that Dashiell Hammett would have admired.

Duke Ashby is Mill's representation of the ideal federal agent - young, bright, clean cut, modest, fearless, dedicated and straighter than an arrow. Ashby and his fellow agents, in fact, are the only elements of the stories that are not entirely realistic. They're grown-up Boy Scouts, along the lines of Jimmy Christopher, Operator No. 5. The difference is that while other pulp heroes are battling fantastic, world-beating terrors, Duke Ashby & friends go after kidnappers and bank robbers. And that's a good thing. The pulpiness of the heroes emphasizes the reality of everything else.

Blue Book is not a mag we hear much about today, but it was one of the best of its time. Mill's work was running alongside that of guys like Carl Sandburg, Edgar Rice Burroughs and H. Bedford-Jones, and he deserved to be there. He had a sly and clever wit, and many of his lines sneak up on you and make you smile.

Check out Shock Troops of Justice, and the rest of the amazing Black Dog line, right HERE. 

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Overindulged Films: Batman (1989) and Batman Returns (1992)

To be more exact, my problem with these films is the Overindulged Director (Tim Burton) and at least one Overindulged Star (Jack Nicholson).

I seem to remember liking both movies when they premiered, but I suspect I enjoyed the anticipation more than the results. I had high hopes that Batman would bring the superhero film genre some redemption after the cinematic travesty known as Superman IV: The Quest for Peace.

But viewing them now, it's hard to believe I was all that pleased. Both films had their moments. The highpoint was probably Gotham City, clearly inspired by Fritz Lang's Metropolis. The Batmobile was pretty cool, too, and the Batplane wasn't bad. Michael Gough made a fine Alfred, and Kim Bassinger did a surprisingly good job as Vicky Vale.

But Michael Keaton was just okay as Bruce Wayne, and when it came to Batman, he and his stand-ins were merely stiffs in suits. The rubber was so thick the actors could barely move, let alone fight, and Batman's most convincing move seemed to be getting knocked flat on his back.

But the biggest problem with the first film was Jack Nicholson's dialogue. His lines were so corny, juvenile, and downright painful that I have a hard time believing a scriptwriter would have written them down. I have to suspect that Nicholson was ad-libbing, and given his stature and influence, Tim Burton just gave him free rein.

On the other hand, Nicholson's lines are so bad that they may have been an actual plus for Burton, serving to distract the viewer from his heavy-handed direction.

Burton was not so lucky with Batman Returns. With Danny DeVito (the Penguin) and Michelle Pfeiffer (Catwoman) seemingly following the script, his in-your-face gothic vision was on full display. I can't fault Burton for having a distinctive style, and it was fine for films like Edward Scissorhands and The Nightmare Before Christmas. But with an icon like Batman, I want the focus on the hero, not on the director's need to show how bizarre he can be. The scenes with the Penguin and Catwoman, both alone and together, labored so hard to be creepy that they became boring.

To be fair, there were moments in both films when the story took center stage, and I felt like I was truly in the world of Batman. But those moments never lasted long, and in the final analysis, Bats always took a back seat to Tim.

More Overlooked Films, as always, at SWEET FREEDOM.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Forgotten (but FREE) Stories: Race Williams in Carroll John Daly's "Murder by Mail"

Here's your monthly fix of blazing guns and sudden death, Race Williams style. "Murder by Mail" appeared in the March 1931 issue of Black Mask, and has languished there ever since.

This is the fourth in our continuing series of Lost Adventures of Race Williams. If you requested any of the first three, Alias Buttercup, The Super-Devil or Blind Alleys, I'll be sending you this one too. If not, blast me an email at, and I'll be glad to shoot you back scans of all four stories.

And check out this week's line-up of Forgotten Books at pattinase!

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Skyler Hobbs and the Cottingley Fairies

As you probably know, the fabulous old-fashioned print edition of the all-new BEAT to a PULP: Round Two (available HERE) was published last month, and the new-fangled eBook edition (available HERE) made the scene just day before yesterday.

My humble contribution to this primo collection is a tale called "Skyler Hobbs and the Cottingley Fairies," which sort of begs the question, "Who the heck are the Cottingley Fairies?"

Well, here's the scoop, in the form of a Forgotten Books review I posted some time back. Arthur Conan Doyle, as you'll see, believed that these fairies (and these photos) were the real thing. Was he right? Check out BEAT to a PULP: Round Two and find out for yourself!

THE COMING OF THE FAIRIES by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

In case you’re not familiar with this particular bit of weird history . . .

Back in 1917 two girls in the Yorkshire village of Cottingley took two photographs that rocked Arthur Conan Doyle’s world. Doyle was deep into spiritualism at the time, and had had been gathering information for an article to support his belief in the existence of fairies. 

Imagine his delight, then, to receive what he considered concrete evidence that he was right. The photos (shown below so that you too may be astounded), depicted one of the girls posing with a group of dancing fairies, and the other shaking hands with a gnome.

Doyle began a lengthy correspondence with the man who had sent him the pictures, a Theosophist named E. L. Gardner. Gardner did most of the on-site investigating of the girls, their family, the photos and the site where they were taken. Strangely, there is no indication Doyle ever attempted to meet the girls or visit the site himself.

In any case, Doyle presented the first two photos to the world with an article in The Strand magazine. Not long after, the girls were given a new camera and asked to take more pictures. They did, producing three more. 

Along with the Strand article, the five photos formed the basis of The Coming of the Fairies.  Doyle then added correspondence, arguments for and against the authenticity of the photos, other accounts of close encounters with nymphs, brownies, goblins, elves, gnomes and fairies, plus a good deal of pseudo-scientific nonsense speculating on the how and why of their existence. First published in 1922, the book was largely forgotten and remained out of print until rediscovered in 1997.

That Doyle truly believed such stuff is pretty clear. He’s convinced the photos and other evidence demonstrate that… “this new order of life is really established and has to be taken into serious account, just as the pygmies of Central Africa.”

One of the best lines in the book actually belongs to a skeptic. He's quoted as saying . . . “knowing children, and knowing that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle has legs, I decide that the [girls] have pulled one of them.”

What is not included in the book is what happened long after. In the 1980s, the girls finally claimed they had faked the first four pictures, using cardboard cutouts traced from childrens books. One girl, however, still insisted the fifth photo, supposedly depicting a fairy bower, was genuine. Were they lying when they were kids, or lying when they were grown-ups? You be the judge. Or better yet, leave it up to Skyler Hobbs.

Here are the photos in the order they were taken. Captions are those used in the book.






Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Overlooked Films: Batman (1943)

I've seen stills from this serial ever since I was a kid (beginning, no doubt, with the Warren mag Screen Thrills Illlustrated), but never got around to seeing the film until now. Well, hey. It was worth the wait.

The stills make it look pretty cheesy, due primarily to Batman's floppy-eared cowl and high-waisted trunks. But the surprising thing is - the cowl and trunks are the most serious flaws in the whole 15-chapter serial.

To begin with, our hero is consistently referred to as The Batman, which is fitting and proper for 1943. There are no Academy Award performances here, but the acting is perfectly acceptable, and the dialogue is several notches above the comic book norm. Best of all, there's nothing campy going on here. Batman and Robin are portrayed as seriously as any other screen heroes, which is the way it should be. While Lewis Wilson is only passable as The Batman, he's a fine Bruce Wayne, while 16-year-old Douglas Croft is equally competent as Robin and Dick Grayson.

Being 1943, it's not surprising the plot revolves around a Japanese scheme to help them win the war. The number one villain is a Japanese agent/evil mastermind called Dr. Daka, played by the very un-Japanese J. Carrol Naish with artificially slanted eyes. Among his inventions are a gas that can change the color of a moving automobile, a radium gun, and a gadget that turns good loyal Americans into slavish zombies. And just for fun, he keeps a bunch of hungry crocodiles in a pit beneath the trapdoor in his office floor.

One cool note: The first time we see Alfred, he's reading a detective pulp. Hard to be sure, but it looks to me like an issue of Private Detective Stories, maybe even one I possess.

One peculiar note: Batman's cape and cowl assembly keeps changing color, often within a single scene. Sometimes it appears black, sometimes medium gray, and sometimes a pale gray. The black looks best, of course, but maybe they figured it wouldn't always photograph well.

The cliffhangers are pretty standard stuff. Batman gets caught in burning buildings, goes over a cliff in a car, gets caught between moving walls with sword blades sticking out of them, etc., and each time the bad guys are certain he's been killed. After about the twelfth chapter, though, they come up with the novel theory that there must be a whole gang of Batmen, and can only hope the next one they kill will be the last.

Over the course of watching these 15 chapters, I also watched - for the first time in 20 years - the Tim Burton Batman flick starring Michael Keaton and Jack Nicholson. Surprise! The 1943 cheapie beat the 1989 big-budget version all to hell. 

Overlooked Film Fans are advised, as always, to look for more at SWEET FREEDOM.

The following six panels comprised a comic strip ad for the serial, and offer a surprisingly accurate representation of some of the action. The most inaccurate element is that Batman actually looks like Batman.