Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer

Few authors get to portray their own lead character in a movie. Sure, Stephen King has had cameo roles in many films based on his work including Pet Sematary, Thinner, Sleepwalkers. Peter Benchley had a cameo as a TV reporter in the screen version of his best selling novel Jaws, and William Peter Blatty appeared early on in the role of a movie producer in the movie version of The Exorcist. Other authors have made brief appearances in film versions of their works, but none have ever portrayed their own iconic character in a leading role except for Mickey Spillane.

mickey-spillane-books-movies-girl-hunters-mike-hammer-960x430

Mickey Spillane as Mike Hammer and Shirley Eaton in “The Girl Hunters”

In 1963, Mickey Spillane played his legendary P.I., Mike Hammer in The Girl Hunters. The film is middle of the road, worth seeing, but Spillane’s lack of talent as an actor is evident. The novel, the seventh in the series, deals with an alcoholic Hammer whose binge drinking has been going on ever since his beloved Velda has gone missing and is presumed dead for the past seven years. He receives a second chance and inspiration when he learns there’s a chance Velda may still be alive.

While Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe worked on the outskirts of the law, Mike Hammer found the legalities of the system to be a hindrance to his own brand of righteousness. Hammer was a tough, no holds barred P.I., extreme in his use of violence even by today’s standards. A right-wing, anti-communist, Hammer would have made both Spade and Marlowe shake in their boots. You might call Hammer the father to Clint Eastwood’s Harry Callahan, both are more vigilantes than  lawmen and both had little use for ethical boundaries of the law when pursuing a criminal. Hammer has no problem shooting a killer in the gut and while watching him die kick his teeth out, or maybe he’ll just put a cigarette out in the victim’s eye. In Dirty Harry, Harry Callahan shoots the suspected serial killer known as “Scorpio” in the leg, even though he surrendered and had his hands up in the air. Harry though isn’t finished yet, he wants to know where Scorpio’s kidnapped 14-year-old victim is buried alive. To encourage his victim to speak, Harry presses his foot on Scorpio’s wound harder and harder until he gives up the girl’s location. Mike Hammer would be proud.

juryHammer first appeared back in 1947 in Spillane’s first and still the best-known novel, I, The Jury. The Great War had just ended, and anti-communism was on the rise, the House on Un-American Activities, established in 1938, was gaining power, the rise of Joe McCarthy, and the Hollywood Blacklist were all in full swing. The Cold War was building, and many Americans wondered if nuclear destruction was not far away. This is the world that shaped Mickey Spillane and that of his hero Mike Hammer. Spillane decided not to sugar coat the world in his books. It was a rough and violent world, and he would not play it politely. I, The Jury shocked readers. While a lot of the dialogue today may seem dated, the ending is still shocking.

I, The Jury became a pop culture phenomena; the book is mentioned in Larry McMurtry’s novel The Last Picture Show as a paperback the town’s local drug store could not keep in stock. In Peter Bogdanovich’s screen version we see the book passed from one high school kid to another in a classroom. On TV, in the first episode of Happy Days, Potsie Weber gives Richie Cunningham a copy of the Spillane’s torrid book to study after he gets a date with Mary Lou Wiggins, a girl with an easy reputation. In an episode of M.A.S.H., Major Charles Winchester, indebted to Klinger for saving his life, reads from I, The Jury while the Major unappreciative listens.

In addition to Spillane’s depiction in The Girl Hunters, Mike Hammer has been portrayed by many actors over the years in films:  Biff Eliot (I, The Jury–1953), Armand Assante (I, The Jury–1982), Robert Bray (My Gun is Quick–1957) and Ralph Meeker (Kiss Me, Deadly–1955). Made for TV movies featured Stacy Keach in a series of films: Murder Me, Murder You (1983), the pilot of the TV series, More Than Murder (1984), The Return of Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer (1986), Mike Hammer’s Murder Takes All (1989). Keach also played Hammer in The New Mike Hammer TV series that ran for four seasons (1984-1987). In 1997, the show was brought back with Keach under the name Mike Hammer, Private Eye. Kevin Dobson played Hammer in a 1981 TV film, Margin for Murder. Things deteriorated for Spillane’s tough guy when in 1994 another TV film called Come Die With Me: A Mickey Spillane Mike Hammer Mystery appeared starring Rob Estes with Pam Anderson as Velda. The best of the movies is Robert Aldrich’s, Kiss Me, Deadly with Ralph Meeker making for a perfect Mike Hammer. The film was in synch with the paranoia and fear of a nuclear war prevalent at the time.

The earliest attempt at a TV series came in 1954 when Blake Edwards (The Pink Panther) wrote and directed a pilot for a series called Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer with Brian Keith as the tough P.I. The pilot was considered too violent for the times and did not get picked up by the networks. Edwards would have better luck in TV detectives a few years later with the smoother and cooler Peter Gunn. In the late 1950s, Spillane’s P.I. did make it to the small screen with Darren McGavin portraying Hammer in Mike Hammer.

Since Spillane’s death in 2006, the prolific author Max Allan Collins, a friend of Spillane’s was given the blessing of completing various unfinished manuscripts and to this day continues to put out Mike Hammer novels.

Recent Read: Colorblind

199B652E-8B8B-4644-8883-F788B9B848A0

Colorblind is Reed Farrel Coleman’s fifth book since taking over Robert B. Parker’s Jesse Stone series. It’s his best. Coleman has taken Stone, and while preserving Parker’s essence, made him his own. It’s a winning combination.

After a few months in rehab, Jesse  gets a second chance as police chief in the small Massachusetts town of Paradise. He is still struggling, both emotionally and mentally, to recover from the death of his murdered love, Diana.

When Jesse first became police chief of Paradise, years ago, it was a small town with not much happening. A far cry from his days with the L.A. Police. But like so much of America, Paradise has grown and changed. Barely able to settle back in to his job, there‘s a rape and death of  a young African-American, Felicity Wileford, who was jogging alone on the beach.  A few nights later, a burning cross is planted on the property of Dr. Ron Patel and his wife. The home was previously owned by Jesse. What the incidents have in common is Felicity was in a relationship with a white man and Dr. Patel, an Indian, has a wife who is white. Not long after these incidents, flyers are found on many parked cars placed there during the night. They are credited to an extremist right-wing group called  “The Saviors of Society.” A few nights later, the group targets Jesse’s deputy, Alisha, the first black woman ever hired as a police officer in Paradise, framing her for a bad shooting.

In this book, Coleman brings to the forefront a series of timely issues turning this story into a much darker version than earlier books in the series. Like the rest of America, Paradise is dealing with issues that have divided us. Don’t let that discourage you, just think about it the same way as if you’re watching a movie franchise and different artists have taken over from the originals. It’s different, but the same.

Recent Read: Kill Devil Falls

Kill Devil Falls

Kill Devil Falls is a town on its final breaths of life. A former mining town whose water has been contaminated; it’s a cold and hostile place in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. There is no cell phone service, no main roads in or out, and the electrical power is iffy. The town’s main street is loaded with potholes and consists mostly of a lot of empty, dilapidated buildings and trailers. The few folks still living there are a strange collection of oddballs, deviates, and creeps.

Into this hellhole comes U.S. Marshall Helen Morrissey, sent there on a last minute assignment to transport prisoner Rita Crawford, back to Sacramento where she and her boyfriend Lee Larimer have been on a spree of robberies.  One night while on the run, Rita takes the stolen money and high tails it off to Kill Devil Falls leaving Larimer in the wind.  In town, she is apprehended by the local sheriff, Big Ed and his deputy, Teddy, who happens to be his son.

After filling out the required paperwork to transfer Rita into her custody; ready to take her back to Sacramento, Helen discovers her car won’t start. Has it been tampered with? This is just the beginning of a wild ride of terror and death. Rita is the first to die, but far from the last, and Helen soon discovers she’s on her own, isolated, with no one to trust, and fighting to stay alive.

Kill Devil Falls moves at a breathless speed with surprising twists and turns along the way. The author plays it cool with his cast of disturbing in-bred characters. You’re never certain which of them is the crazed psycho killer, or just creepy unscrupulous opportunists trying to get their hands on the money left behind by the late not so lovely Rita.

Recent Read: The Deep Blue Good-by

The DeepThe master of Florida noir, John D. MacDonald was admired by writers like Stephen King, Lee Child and Dean Koontz among many others. MacDonald’s most famous character was Florida’s dark-knight Travis McGee.  In his first adventure, there were 21 books in the series, McGee willingly helps out, he called himself a “salvage consultant,” a young woman recover illegal funds her father stole and smuggled back home during the war.  His fee is fifty percent of what he recovers.

Travis’ methods of getting information are not always, I guess you can say legal. In this book, he strips one drunk guy, ties him up in a shower, hits him with cold water to sober him up, and then with hot scorching water to get him to talk. That said, McGee can be introspective, philosophical, sometimes cynical, and does have his moments of charm with women. Florida isn’t all fun in the sun.

 

Robert B Parker, Spenser and Jesse Stone

Parker imageBetween 2005 and 2015, nine direct for TV movies were made based on Robert B. Parker’s Jessie Stone novels. Recently, I have been re-watching many of them, seven so far to be exact. Parker was one of my favorite authors. He passed away in 2010.

Parker SpenserRobert B. Parker was best known for his Spenser novels. Spenser, a Boston based, ex-boxer, poetry reading, gourmet cook, wise-ass talking, sensitive guy and tough in a fight as they come P.I.  A fictional decedent of Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe and Hammett’s Sam Spade. Predictably, a TV series, Spenser for Hire followed starring a very dull Robert Urich. However, the problem was not just Urich; it was the scripts. Though the show has its admirers, on TV, Spenser lost a lot. He became just another vanilla filled version of every other TV detective seen before and after. Four made for TV films followed starring Joe Mantegna as our hero. They were an improvement on the series, though no one was going believe Mantegna was an ex-boxer.

Night PAIn 1997, Parker published his first Jesse Stone novel (Night Passage). Stone, an ex-L.A. detective, fired because of a drinking problem which began after his divorce from his wife, Jen. Jesse is hired as police chief of the fictional Massachusetts town of Paradise. The town council appointed him because they believed since he is damaged goods, they will be able to control him. Little did they know.

Night passThe first film (Night Passage) came out, as mentioned earlier, in 2005. Jesse is played by, with sharp assurance, by Tom Selleck. Jesse is damaged goods. He’s alcoholic, Johnny Walker Red his choice of drink. Moody, unwavering, iconoclastic and good at what he does.  Throughout the books, and the films, Jesse is a man coming to terms with himself. Though his divorce haunts him, he does go out with other women but admits to all them he is not a good candidate for a permanent relationship.

The first five films are based on Parker’s novels. The last four were originals stories written by Michael Brandman and Tom Selleck. The movies are consistently good without being great, nor ever slipping into the disappointing category. Visually, they nicely capture the atmosphere of small New England towns, though all of them were shot in Nova Scotia and the surrounding area.

After Robert B. Parker passed away, the Parker estate decided not to let Parker’s fictional anti-heroes die with him. They handed them over to other authors. Ace Atkins has been writing the Spenser series (six, so far with another coming out in May this year), except for one book (Silent Night) that Parker had begun, but did not finish before his death. The book was completed by Helen Brann, Parker’s literary agent, and close friend. Author Michael Brandman continued the Jesse Stone series. He was co-writer on most of the Jesse Stone screenplays, whether adapted from a novel or original. Brandman wrote the first three post-Parker Jesse Stone novels. Beginning with the publication of Blind Spot, Reed Farrel Coleman picked up the series. His fourth book in the series, Colorblind, with be published in September.

Short Story: Holcomb Bridge

Holcomb Bridge is a short story from my book, Devious Tales. If you like it and want more tales with a twist, you can purchase the complete book at Amazon (ebook and paperback), Barnes & Noble (ebook and paperback), and Kobo (ebook).  The paperback contains two additional stories.

Holcomb Bridge was the sort of small bridge you find in many small towns. This particular one though had little traffic during the day and was even quieter at night. That is except for Friday and Saturday nights when local teens came out here way after dark looking for a deserted area where they could park and neck. As a cop, I knew all this pretty well. I was also a teenager once myself, and having grown up here, I had fond memories of kissing Caroline McKay, Janie Newton, and a few other girls right on that bridge. Not at the same time of course!

      It’s a romantic spot. Especially if you got lucky and the moon was full, shining bright and reflecting off the river below. These days, this area of town was part of my regular patrol, and those nights of my teenage lust long gone except for the memories. I am married now to a great woman. Her name is Barbara. We have two terrific sons, Michael and Anthony. Still, whenever I drive by this bridge which is every night I am on duty, it brings back fond recollections of those late nights and early mornings. Today, as a police officer, I always left the kids alone.

     Unlike Ray Morton.

     Ray Morton was the police officer who patrolled this area back in those days when it was me and Caroline and Janie necking in the shadows of the bridge along with other kids. Soon as he spotted us, Morton jumped out of his car. He would shine a bright flashlight right at us and chase us all off threatening to tell our folks. Like we cared!

     Me on the other hand, I just drive by, take a quick gaze at the surroundings making sure nothing looks out of the ordinary and let the kids be. Necking and maybe smoking a bit of weed was not the worst thing you could do.

     This particular night though was a Wednesday. It was well past midnight, and the person on the bridge was not a teenager, and he was there all by himself. His car was parked right in the middle of the bridge. I pulled over stopping my car about twenty feet from him. I shut the headlights off and sat there looking at him for a bit getting the impression he didn’t even know I was there. He hadn’t moved. He was just staring down at the water. I quietly got out of my car and slowly walked over toward him until I was a couple of feet away. He still did not move or acknowledge my presence. I leaned over the railing and stared out into the darkness.

     “Nice night, a bit cool maybe,” I said.

     “I’ve seen better.”

     “How long you been here?”

     “I don’t know. An hour or so, maybe. Makes no difference.”

     “You know, I bet that water is still cold after our snowy winter.”

     He turned and looked at me for the first time, just for a moment. He nodded, “yeah, it probably is.” He then turned back to staring out into the dark nothingness.

     He pulled out a pack of cigarettes. Put one in his mouth and then offered me one.

     I shook my head. “Gave them up a while back.”

     “I thought of doing that too, but lately it just doesn’t seem to matter.”

     He lit up, took a long drag and blew out a mouth full of smoke.

     “You know, life gives you a lot of twists and turns,” he said. “One moment it makes you think everything is finally going to ease up and go well. You could settle down, be happy, and then…then you suddenly, unexpectedly get a big knife right in your gut ripping you apart.”

     “If you don’t mind me asking, what happened?”

     He took the cigarette out of his mouth and held it in right hand.

     “My wife died.”

     “I’m sorry.”

     “That’s what everyone says. They all say how sorry they are, friends, relatives, co-workers. They all offer help, food, comfort, companionship. Everything except for one thing.”

     “What is that?” I asked even though I knew the answer.

     “How do I get my wife back? She was everything to me, and now she’s gone. I’m alone.”

     “Do you have kids?”

     “No. Stella couldn’t have children, and that was okay with me. We had each other and always would, forever. At least, that’s what I thought. Forever ended sooner than expected.”

     With that, he flicked the half-smoked cigarette into the river below. We were silent for a few minutes.

     “You married?” he asked.

     I nodded in the affirmative, “we have two boys,” I said.

     “That’s nice. Like I said, Stella couldn’t have kids.  I knew when we got married that she couldn’t have them. She had a hysterectomy when she was nineteen believe or not. Cancer. But they got it all, and here we were twelve years later, and she was doing great. We were happy.”

     “What happened?”

     “The cancer didn’t come back if that’s what you’re thinking. It was a car accident. Some teenage kid. A seventeen-year-old asshole texting on her phone swerved, not paying attention to the road, slammed head on right into her. The doctors said she most likely died instantaneously. I guess that’s something to be grateful for huh?”

     He pulled out another cigarette and lit it up. “Maybe, it was cancer that killed Stella. The stupid human kind. You know what I mean?”

     “Unfortunately, I do. Kids, texting and driving. It’s not just kids,” I said. “Not to sound like an advertisement or something, but it’s an epidemic.”

     “Stupidity never dies.”

     “I’ll take one if you don’t mind.”

     “Thought you said you quit?”

     “Generally speaking…” I smiled.

     He smiled back and offered me the pack. I took one and lit up. We both stood there silent for a while again.  This time it was longer though I can’t say how long, but we finished that pack of cigarettes, I know that.

     The wind was beginning to pick up a little. It felt good.

     “I hated that kid,” he said suddenly. “Lord knows I did. Marcy Stevens, that’s her name. I know you’re a cop, but I’ll tell you anyway. I wanted to kill her. I wanted her not just to die, but to suffer before she died, actually suffer like I have been suffering now.”

     “Did you? I asked.

     “Did I what?”

     “Kill her.”

     He looked at me incredulously. “No, of course not. I had a lot of rage for a long time, and I thought up a lot of bad things. A lot of different ways to make her suffer. Run her down like she did Stella. Then run over her again and again, going back and forth. Then I thought of shooting her or stabbing her. But I…I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t do any of that. Stella wouldn’t have wanted me to. She would have wanted me to forgive that kid. That’s the kind of sweet soul she was.”

     “Sounds like she was a wonderful person.”

     “Oh she was, she was.”

     “Have you been seeing anybody? Professionally I mean, a doctor.”

     “I did for a while, but I stopped going. I began drinking for a while, but I kept getting sick to my stomach. Never been able to tolerate booze well. I gave up on that too. That’s when I started coming out here to think. Thinking about a lot of things but mostly about,” he stops for a moment, “well, you can guess.”

     “Yeah, probably,” I said. “You should go back to the doctor.”

     “Yeah, but I have been coming out here for a while now. True, the first few times I came out here, I always had plans to…well, take the dive. End it all. But, somehow, I never did. Then I began coming out here as some sort of therapeutic thing. I’d talk to Stella, and for a while that was good. And she told me it was okay and I should go on with my life. Am I crazy, talking to a dead person?”

     “Lots of people do when they miss someone,” I said.

     “Well, believe it or not, it helped. I stopped coming here, and I thought I was over it all. You know, I figured I reached a point, with Stella’s blessings, where I could move on with my life. It was all okay for a time. A couple of months went by, and it was good. I even thought of dating. Then came one night when suddenly inside my head I felt all those old emotions and feelings come rushing back. The next night and the next were the same. I couldn’t take it anymore. I had to come out here. It all came back. I wanted to jump again. I wanted it all to end. Then you appeared, and we talked. I’m okay now, at least for tonight.”

     “Well, I’m glad for that,” I said and truly was.

     “I guess it’s like being an alcoholic. You have to take it one day at a time.”

     “I guess, but I still think a doctor could help you along the way.”

     “You’re probably right. I should go back. Maybe next time you won’t be here to talk me down.”

     He looked at me.

     “I want to thank you,” he said. “You know, I just realized I don’t know your name.”

     “Moretti, Bob Moretti,” I said. “If you ever want to talk or need me, here is my cellphone number.” I took a card out and jotted down my personal number.

     “Mine’s Fred Smith.”

     We shook hands.

     By now, a couple of hours had passed, and the sun was beginning to rise slowly.

     “Wow, we’ve been here almost all night,” Fred said.

     “Time goes by when you’re having fun…” I said, trying to keep it light. “Like I said, Fred. Anytime. Just call me, and we can talk. I don’t want to come here again some night and find you down at the bottom of that river.”

     “I appreciate all this. Thanks, Officer Moretti.”

     “Bob,” I said.

     “Bob.”

     We shook hands again, and I walked over and got into my cruiser. I backed up to the end of the bridge and sat there for a moment watching as Fred got into his car. He was heading in the opposite direction from me.  His car started up. Suddenly, there was the screech of his tires. Bob’s car burned rubber as he drove right through the railings and off the bridge plunging into the cold river below.

     I waited for the rescue team to arrive. It took them a half hour to get here. By then the sun was almost up, and it was no longer a rescue operation. There’s no way Fred could have survived that frigid water, even if he survived the car’s dive into the river. Now, this was a recovery operation.

     They dragged the car out of the river. As expected, Fred was dead. Still strapped in with his seat belt which I found ironic since he planned on killing himself. Habit maybe?

     Also dead was the teenage girl, Marcy Stevens. She was tied up in the trunk of the car. Her cellphone was stuffed into her mouth and held there with tape.

 

 

 

Murder, Mayhem and Christmas

Over the years, I have developed a bit of an addiction to reading holiday themed mysteries around this time of the year.   Murder, mayhem and Christmas make for a good holiday treat. I thought  I would list a few seasonal mystery books I have read over the years that you may enjoy.

Hercule Poirot’s Christmas- Agatha Christie

Technically, I have not read this yet. I bought a copy a couple of days ago and just began it last night. But hey, it’s Dame Agatha, so it can’t be bad.

AC5EFF68-1DB5-4BA7-B16D-B7138B0EBEAF

 Silent Night – Robert B. Parker

Robert B. Parker was one of my favorite authors. This slender volume was left uncompleted when the author passed away in 2010. The book was completed by his long time editor and friend Helen Brann. Subsequently, we got one last Spenser novel from the master. It’s not Parker at his best, but even middle of the road Parker is better than none at all.

AC768696-56DA-42B3-8523-625F7ED7447B

The Spy Who Came For Christmas – David Morrell

Santa Fe, New Mexico is one of my favorite cities to visit. David Morrell, born in Canada, has lived in Santa Fe for many years. He knows the town and uses it’s famed art strip, Canyon Road, as the setting for this fast paced snowy Christmas Eve thriller.

55C0DE96-4E76-477D-BC19-30C358DEAAF4

Christmas at The Mysterious Bookshop – Otto Penzler

For 17 years, Otto Penzler commissioned a Christmas themed short story from one of his favorite mystery writers. The one criteria, besides a Christmas setting, was the story or at least some of it had to take place at Penzler’s famed NYC Mysterious Bookshop.  In 2010, he compiled the stories and published this excellent collection. Among the authors, Lawrence Block, Donald Westlake, S.J.Rozan and Mary Higgins Clark. A must read.

45263E98-D2D2-42BA-BC22-D5CDB1B865C4

Wreck the Halls – Sarah Graves

I earlier mentioned New Mexico as one of my favorite places to visit. The great state of Maine is another. Like New Mexico, I have been to Maine a few times. On one of our trips, my wife and I went to Eastport. Maine, the eastern most city in the United States. While walking along the small town’s main street we came across a hardware store. We noticed there was something  odd about its window display.  In one corner, there was a series of paperback books, all by one author…Sarah Graves. Intrigued, we went in and browsed through some of the books and decided to purchase two. The woman behind the counter, then asked us if we would like the books autographed? The author was upstairs, she said pointing to a staircase toward the back of the store. We climbed up and sure enough, there was Sarah Graves sitting at a desk. We talked for a few minutes, and she signed our books. While I never found out, I suspect Ms. Graves owned the hardware store. It would make sense, but then again, like her books, it’s a mystery.

EC83BEAC-C286-4435-A1BB-56C76DB2AAC9

Shadows of a Maine Christmas  Lea Wait

Like Ms. Graves, Lea Wait is a Maine author, and she captures the state’s atmosphere superbly in her series of cozy mysteries. You genuinely feel like you are in small town Maine. Murder, a bit of violence, and long buried secrets all come to light in this holiday treat.

64A5A66C-97E9-49FC-AAED-5051869E1BF2

A Christmas Carol – Charles Dickens

Okay, it may be a bit of a stretch to include Dicken’s classic as a mystery, but think about it; the book is filled with suspense, ghosts and a bit of mayhem. I have read A Christmas Carol several times over the years and it’s always a pleasure,

mmass

.

 

 

 

 

A Slight Case of Donald Westlake

westlake-photo-0-jpgOne of my favorite crime writers is the late Donald E. Westlake. Westlake was awarded the title of Grand Master by The Mystery Writers of America, as well as a three time Edgar winner. He wrote over 100 novels and numerous short stories and screenplays.

hunter_3rd_1Rock
Westlake was a prolific author, best known for two long running series, one featuring the dark anti-hero known only as Parker, written under one of his many pen names, Richard Stark, and the lighter comedic mysteries featuring John Dortmunder. By 1977, both characters had already made their way to the movie screen. In 1967, the first Parker novel, The Hunter, appeared under the title Point Blank (1) with Parker’s name changed, inexplicably, to Walker. The film featured Lee Marvin in the lead role. Five years later John Dortmunder hit the screen with Robert Redford in The Hot Rock.
ENoughBack in 1977, the author published a book called Enough. It consisted of two novellas, the longer of the two was called A Travesty, and the second, shorter story, was Orb. Enough may be one of the toughest of Westlake’s works to find a copy. I was fortunate enough a few years back to discover a copy at a local library. A Travesty is a dark, comic tale involving a sexually insatiable film critic, Corey Thorpe, who during a heated argument with one of his lovers accidentally kills her. Having seen too many movies, instead of calling the police, Thorpe decides to cover up his involvement in the transgression. Unfortunately, Thorpe’s lover was under surveillance by a blackmailing private investigator. Additionally, the investigating police detective takes a liking to our “‘hero,” and admires his amateur detective instincts. He’s also a frustrated screenwriter and would like Corey to take a look at what he wrote. Along the way, Corey is “forced” to commit a couple of more murders. Regrettably, for the film critic, his voracious appetite for sex does him in when he spurns the wrong woman.

a-slight-case-of-murder-150353l-600x0-w-5cb070a8Let’s fast forward more than 30 years to 1999 and the premiere on TNT of a film called A Slight Case of Murder. It’s not to be confused with the 1938 Edward G Robinson film with the same title, but a made for TV film starring William H. Macy, Felicity Huffman, James Cromwell and Adam Atkin. The film is based on A Travesty and adapted for the screen by Macy and director Steven Schachter. The duo faithfully captures the humorous essence of Westlake’s novella. The film critic’s name was changed in the movie from Corey to Terry, but much of the tale stays close to Westlake’s original work. It’s smart with plenty of visual and verbal nods to the noir films it’s sending up including Terry talking at times directly to the camera (in place of a voice over). It’s filled with murders, sleazy characters and plenty of twists wrapped up in a funny script that film lovers, like myself, will especially love.

The performances by the four main actors are all of high quality, though William H. Macy gets a special nod in a role that some may find reminiscent of his Jerry Lundgaard role in Fargo. Also noteworthy is Julia Campbell’s work as Arkin’s amorous wife, whose affair with Macy leads to his downfall.

Hooktheax-001

I am a big fan of two of the author’s stand-alone books, The Ax and The Hook, both wonderful satires. In The Ax, the main character is Burke Devore, a quiet company man who after twenty-five years of service becomes a victim of corporate downsizing. After two years of unemployment, his life falling apart, Burke comes up with what he considers the ideal solution, eliminate his competition by killing them off.

The Hook is a devious tale about author Bryce Proctor, a mediocre but best-selling author. Then there is author Wayne Prentice, a more accomplished writer than Procter, but his books no longer hit the best sellers list. Bryce has been going through a rough stretch including a divorce which has led to a bad case of writer’s block. To make it worst he has a deadline quickly approaching on his next book. Wayne comes up with a plan that would help them both. He’ll write the book, give it to Bryce to publish under his name, and they split the royalties 50/50. Bryce is all for it except he has one caveat, Wayne needs to kill Bryce’s wife.

Many of Westlake’s books have made it to the screen, unfortunately not always in a good way. The previously mentioned Point Blank, The Hot Rock, and A Slight Case of Murder are on the plus side. However, more often than not, there were mediocre films like Cops and Robbers, The Twin, The Split, The Bank Shot, and the awful and misguided Jimmy the Kid which was turned into a vehicle for Gary Coleman. Interesting enough, a few of Westlake’s books have been made into films by foreign filmmakers including Costa-Gavras whose 2005 film, Le Couperet, is based on The Ax. In 1966, Jean Luc Godard loosely adapted Westlake’s The Juggler (a Parker novel) turning it into Made in the U.S.A. (2) No one connected with the Goddard film, including Goddard, at the time, bothered acquiring the film rights. Westlake eventually sued and won.

As a screenwriter, Westlake was nominated for an Academy Award for his adaptation of hard-boiled author Jim Thompson’s The Grifters (1990). He also wrote the screenplay for the original The Stepfather film which was adapted from a short story he wrote with co-writers, Brian Garfield and Carolyn Lefcourt. For a full list of Westlake’s film credit’s check here.

If you like reading crime fiction and have not read Donald Westlake, get down to your local independent book store or anywhere books are sold and start catching up. If you like hard boiled fiction, the Parker books written under the name of Richard Stark are must reads. On the lighter side are his John Dortmunder books. Dortmunder is a cool, criminal mastermind, brilliant at planning heist. Unfortunately, his luck is not as good as his talent. Inevitably something always goes wrong.

 

Footnotes:

(1) In 1999, Point Blank (The Hunter) was remade as Payback with Mel Gibson in the lead role. Once again Parker’s name was changed again, this time to Porter.

(2) Wikipedia Donald E. Westlake.

Devious Tales – New e-Book Coming Soon

devious-tales-book-cover-final-1-of-1My latest e-book of short stories is nearing completion. I am happy to share some information including the book cover and title. The collection will consist of twelve tasty tales of twisted love, revenge, money, lust and murder. Here are the titles of the stories included:

Holcomb Bridge

Late Night Diner

Smart Like Dillinger

The Old Man

Amanda

Call Waiting

An Anniversary Surprise

An Almost Perfect Woman

An Office Romance

Life Lesson

 A Merry Little  Christmas Gift

The Organic Garden

That’s it for now. Will keep you posted.

 

Feelin’ the Bern…Rhodenbarr

Before Bernie Sanders there was Bernie Rhodenbarr, Lawrence Block’s expert thief and used bookstore owner. While Bern is good at his chosen profession, unfortunate situations always seem to occur, like an unexpected dead body showing up at the wrong time which forces our anti-hero to have to investigate the murder in order to clear his name.

I have been a admirer of Lawrence Block’s work for years now. He first came to my attention one day, during a lunch break from work, browsing the bookshelves in one of the local libraries. It was one of the his Bernie/Burglar books that caught my attention.

Bogart BlockBernie first appeared in 1977 with Burglars Can’t Be Choosers. With his second outing, the series settled in a series of titles beginning with The Burglar Who… With the third book in the series, The Burglar Who Liked to Quote Kipling, published in 1979, Bernie acquired a bookstore in Greenwich Village. Eventually, Bernie got a cat he named Raffles, a gift from his best friend and Village soulmate Carolyn Kaiser. After all, what second hand bookstore doesn’t need a cat?

In all, there are eleven books in the series plus a few short stories. There is not a bad one in the bunch. The last one, The Burglar Who Counted Spoons, was published in 2013 after a nine year hiatus. The books are chock full of sharp witty dialogue and  wonderful characters.

If you are familiar with Lawrence Block, you know that The Burglar books are just a small piece of his complete output of work. Block’s other great character is Matt Scudder, an ex-cop and recovering alcoholic who does “favors” for friends and clients. Scudder quit the force after accidently causing the death of a young girl. His life soon fell apart; he left his family and moved into an old hotel in New York’s Hell’s Kitchen area where he earned money working as a unlicensed P.I. doing those “favors” as he called them. The Scudder books, as you may have guessed,  are much darker but just as brilliantly written.

TombsIn 2014, an excellent adaptation was made of his novel, A Walk Among the Tombstones, with Liam Neeson as Scudder. Until this film, Block had not had much luck with his work being transferred to the screen. From Nightmare Honeymoon to Burglar, one was worst than the other In the latter film, Bernie was transformed into Bernice and portrayed by Whoopi Goldberg. Nothing against Ms. Goldberg, but who the hell thought  this was a good idea?

From what I have read Block has not expressed much interest in doing anymore Bernie books. Which for me and many fans is sad. Still, we can hope.