PHILIP K. DICK “The Defenders.” Novelet. First published in Galaxy SF, January 1953. First reprinted in Invasion of the Robots, edited by Roger Elwood (Paperback Library, April 1965). First collected in The Book of Philip K. Dick (Daw, paperback original, February 1973). Along with two of Dick’s other stories, “The Mold of Yancy” and “The Unreconstructed M,” the basis for his novel The Penultimate Truth (Belmont, paperback original, 1964).

   The story begins with a married couple unhappily having breakfast together. The war news is good, but there is an uneasiness to their conversation that suggests that not all is well. Gradually it is revealed they are several miles underground, and the war is being fought with robots (called leadies) on each side. Because of uncontrolled radiation, the Earth’s surface is uninhabitable.

   Strangely enough, the husband is called into his lab to learn that one of the leadies that has been brought down for a progress report is not radioactive after all. Baffled, a team including our protagonist is sent to the surface to investigate.

   I will not spoil your enjoyment of this story by telling you what they learn, but if you have read enough of Philip K. Dick’s work, I imagine you can guess what the twist is well enough on your own.

   Of course, though, that’s the point of the story, but what Dick also manages to do is describe living conditions not on, but inside the Earth so well that we, the reader, can feel the oppression of a life that is so subtly unbearable, although it has been made as palatable as technology can do it.

   It’s short for a novelette, only 25 pages long, but I think it was long enough to make a noticeable impression on SF readers of the day. My only personal unhappiness with it is that the ending seemed to me to be an overly happy one. To me, it was a case of too quick, too soon.

   This actually is a small tiny fraction of my To Be Read pile. I brought this stack up from the basement late last night, almost entirely at random.

   The question is, which of these should I read next? Any recommendations? Any I should stay far away from?

   Here’s hoping you can read both the authors and the titles:

ROCKET STORIES. July 1953. Vol. 1, No. 2. Edited by Wade Kaempfert [Lester del Rey]. Cover: Schomberg. Overall rating: 1½ stars.

ALGIS BUDRYS “Blood on My Jets.” Complete novel. Detached Operator Ash Holcomb of the SBI is hired to fly the first ship into hyperspace, but as old friend and his iwfe, known since Academy days, plot to steal it from him. Not much of a story, but it reads well enough. (2)

GEORGE O. SMITH “Home Is the Spaceman.” An experimental FTL ship is stopped by a policeman for speeding. (2)

MILTON LESSER “Picnic.” A husband, wife, and two brats stop on a living asteroid for a picnic. (0)

POUL ANDERSON “The Temple of Earth.” Novelette. Civilization on the Moon is headed downhill unless the priests and their knowledge of science can take over. Too much fighting. (2)

BEN SMITH “Sequel.” The paths of three former Academy students meet in space. (3)

CHARLES E. FRITCH “Breathe There a Man.” Rebellion on an Earth where the very air is taxed. The first plot twist really didn’t seem believable. (1)

IRVING COX, JR. “To the Sons of Tomorrow.” Novelette. The crew of a wrecked spaceship become the gods of a new Earth. Distortion of proper names didn’t help. (2)

WILLIAM SCARFF “Firegod.” A fair point to be made, but a basic flaw ruins story of a man playing god. [Pen name of Algis Budrys.] (1)

–February 1968

J. J. STARBUCK “Pilot.” NBC, 26 September 1987. (The series itself of sixteen episodes began three evenings later, on September 29th.) Dale Robertson (Jerome Jeremiah ‘J.J.’ Starbuck), David Huddleston, Shawn Weatherly. Guest cast: Bill Bixby, Patty Duke. Co-creators/screenwriters: Stephen J. Cannell & Lawrence Hertzog. Director: Corey Allen. Episodes are currently available on YouTube.

   J. J. Starbuck (no relation to the coffee shop chain, as far as I know) was an eccentric billionaire who left the running to his several successful commercial enterprises to underlings to travel across the country solving murder cases in which he feels an underdog is getting a poor deal. (At the end of this, the pilot episode, it is revealed that the deaths of his wife and son were what changed his mind about his earlier philosophy that money is everything.)

   His primary means of transportation is a Lincoln convertible enhanced by a hood ornament consisting of three foot span of steer horns. Over the top, yes, but it helped make many a killer think J. J. is nothing more than a corn pone cowboy prone to quoting appropriate homilies fitting the situation at hand.

   Example: “I like to keep an open mind, in case someone comes along and drops a good thought in it.”

   I don’t think anyone but Dale Robertson could get away with lines such as this. The part was almost surely made with him in mind.

   In this opening episode, the villain (Bill Bixby) is accused and arrested of killing his wife. Midway through the trial a pool boy (or the equivalent) confesses to the murder, and Bixby’s character is set free. Then the fellow who confessed retracts his confession, but can Bixby be arrested and tried again? Supposedly not, but I will allow the legal minds reading this have their say.

   The beneficiary of J. J. Starbuck investigation is Bill Bixby’s stepson, who also ends up as J. J.’s foster son halfway through the episode, but I don’t believe he ever showed up again.

   The series lasted only the one season, but it had to be fun for viewers to see Dale Robertson back in the saddle again, so the speak. (*) To me, he was a man totally at ease in any role he played, and he plays this one to the hilt.

(*) Robertson previously starred in two cowboy shows on TV: Tales of Wells Fargo (1957-62) and Iron Horse (1966-68)




RICHARD STARK – Plunder Squad. Parker #16, Random House, hardcover, 1972. Avon, paperback, 1985. University of Chicago Press, softcover, 2010.

   But surely you’ve met Parker. He’s amoral, totally selfish, a hard professional criminal to his fingertips. No sense of humor, he reacts like a computer to any situation he’s in. He’s Lee Marvin in print; he’s beautiful (as his would-be assassin remarked in the memorable film Point Blank) —  and I love every minute in his company.

   This particular book, the penultimate in the saga, concerns the hijacking of a consignment of valuable paintings by Parker and his associates. It also involves Parker finally catching up and dealing with someone unwise enough to double cross him in an earlier book. A very stupid man.  You just don’t try any tricks on Parker.

   One query. Why in Point Blank (the film) was the character  called Walker rather than Parker? (Walker was one of Parker’s aliases.)

– Reprinted from The Poisoned Pen, Volume 4, Number 4 (August 1981).


CHARLES WILLEFORD – The Difference. Dennis McMillan, hardcover, 1999. Previously published as The Hombre from Sonora as by Will Charles (Lenox Hill Press. hardcover, 1971).

   Starts off as a typical western. Set up maybe a bit like Shane.

   Johnny Shaw is 19. Living in Phoenix. He gets a letter saying his father is dead, deep in Arizona Territory, 1880. The elder Shaw left his son no money, only a ranch. But a nice one, with six head of breeding cattle.

   Soon as he arrives, the local open range ranchers want him gone. This is their land. Has been forever. Legal land claims be damned.

   But hey, for your trouble, we’ll pay you well. Say twice its value in gold. You’ve got til tonight.

   I don’t need til tonight, says Johnny. I’ll tell you now. I don’t want your money. My dad left me this ranch and this ranch only. It’s all I’ve got. Now get out.

   My father’s land, my father’s honor. My inheritance, my honor. I’m here to stay.

   So now Johnny’s at war with the ranchers. And the shooting starts.

   But this is Willeford, so you know there’s gonna a twist on western tropes.

   Once Johnny starts a-killing, he starts to like it. Once he defends his honor and wins back his right to till his land, to get the girl, to start a homestead, to be his father’s son, he doesn’t want it anymore.

   Like Courtney Love says, ‘Once I get what I want, I never want it again.’ Well Johnny’ll lay double on that.

   He’d rather be a gunman. And be free.


   If you like Willeford, you’ll love this one as much as anything in the Willeford canon. It fits right in. Another psycho in Willeford’s psycho pantheon. If you aren’t into Willeford and just like westerns — dunno how you’ll feel. I’m not that into westerns except as an alternate setting for hardboiled crime. It seems to me that noir is hardboiled in the city and gunslinger westerns are hardboiled in the country. As writers like Willeford and Whittington and Elmore Leonard and Clifton Adams show, a writer adept at one may be equally adept at the other.

   Another point of interest to me, the protagonist only fully realizes his potential once he dies inside. I book I read awhile ago, of marginal interest here, is called The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down about cultural clashes between the Hmong and American medicine. It’s about how American doctors have a hard time dealing with the superstitions of other cultures and view them as impediments to scientific treatment methods. On the other hand, Hmong feel that to abandon their faith causes ‘soul death’.

   In any case, ‘soul death’ is exactly what allows Pretty Boy Floyd to become a successful, cool-handed bank robber and it’s exactly what allows Johnny Shaw to turn from a scared little boy to a stone cold killer. If you get treated like crap for long enough, you dissociate. You experience time-compression. You are outside your body and can watch things happen more slowly. Veteran NFL quarterbacks talk about time slowing down, watching the action unfold like Neo in The Matrix. In half-time, in quarter-time. While for everyone else everything is moving much too fast. Everyone else is scared.

   But for the dead man, the man who is dead inside already, like Johnny Shaw: “I knew that I would be faster [on the draw]…and deep down inside me I knew why, too. [They] wanted to live. They had everything to live for: a huge ranch, and two pretty girls anxious to marry them. Nobody had ever wanted to keep on living any more than those two men did at that moment. But I wanted to die, and knowing that I wanted to die meant that I would not be killed by either one of them. That was the difference between us”. That’s the Difference.



EARL NORMAN – Kill Me on the Ginza. Burns Bannion #6. Berkley Y626, paperback original, 1962. Barye Phillips cover art. Also available in ebook format (Kindle).

   You know the old saying, “you can’t keep a good thing down?” It seems sometimes you can’t keep a bad thing down either, which explains why Earl Norman’s Burns Bannion novels are back in print.

   Burns Bannion is an expatriate American private eye in Tokyo (each book gives us a long winded explanation how the Japanese would never give an American a P. I. License so Bannion is enrolled as a college student, but never goes to class), and an expert in karate. Literally the little bits of karate you get in these slender books is about the only reason to read them though they promised at times to be so bad they are good without quite making it.

   This one opens with our hero in a club on the Ginza, the neon club district in wide open Post War Tokyo, Burns is leaving a club when a pneumatic Japanese performer heaving precariously in her low cut outfit smacks him over the head with a metal tray.

   “See fat slob! See big hunk! This Burns Bannion! This Tokyo private tante, Snooper! Detective! Lousy Bastard!”    

   So far I can’t disagree with anything she says.

   This is really poverty row private eye stuff with a little international intrigue and exotic locations thrown in. In every book Bannion meets one dimensional (character wise, physically they are three dimensional) Japanese women in various states of undress and gets drawn into pretty non-dimensional cases.

   Bannion fails to recognize this one because she has her clothes on, and he last saw her a week earlier in the buff posing at the Art Photography Studio for Photo Fans also on the Ginza (next to the Urological and Sexual Institute we are told) where Bannion had pretended to be a photographer to check her out for a client, Hedges, a correspondent. Seems the girl, G. N. Noriko was a friend of Bill Crea a missing correspondent who disappeared on a trip to Kobe.

   Before he can go to Kobe though Inspector Ezawa, another Karate man, picks up Bannion and Hedges and takes them to the train station where a dismembered body has been found, and the police have been sent his head in a bowling bag. Bill Crea’s head.

   Not a terrible opening despite Norman’s somewhat tiresome version of wise guy private eye-ese. In this one he’s battling a cult, the Oshira, based on a prototype of modern Japanese gods and predating Buddhism, the hidden god, and something called the Grand Apex which turns out to be a front for sex trafficking from Korea while Bannion gets help from G. N. (and you do not want to know what those initials stand for) and a stripper called Bay-bee.

   There’s also a philosophical criminal called House Charnel who talks like Nietzsche on LSD: “We are all born into the world as enemies.”

   I can see where these time killers were exotic enough at the time to draw some readers. The plots are serviceable, there is a lot of talk about sex and pneumatic Japanese beauties, and of course karate battle aplenty (I wanted to get my hands free so I could Karate-chop the Whore-master to his just rewards.).

   I have a feeling that many people feel more kindly about these than I do, and I have no problem with that.

   I will give Norman this, he manages to keep the action boiling down to the last page and without a single chapter break — that’s right, the edition I read had no chapter breaks, just continuous narrative, and I have a suspicion this may be his best book, though that isn’t saying a lot. He knows something about Japan and probably could have parlayed that into something interesting, but never does.

      The Burns Bannion series

Kill Me in Tokyo. Berkley 1958 [Tokyo]
Kill Me in Shimbashi. Berkley 1959 [Tokyo]
Kill Me in Yokohama. Berkley 1960 [Japan]
Kill Me in Shinjuku. Berkley 1961 [Tokyo]
Kill Me in Yoshiwara. Berkley 1961 [Tokyo]
Kill Me in Atami. Berkley 1962 [Japan]
Kill Me on the Ginza. Berkley 1962 [Tokyo]
Kill Me in Yokosuka. Erle 1966 [Japan]
Kill Me in Roppongi. Erle 1967 [Japan]

ANTHONY BERKELEY – Top Story Murder.  Roger Sheringham #7. Doubleday Crime Club, hardcover, 1931. Published previously in the UK as Top Storey Murder (Hodder & Stoughton, hardcover, 1931).

   Novelist and part-time criminologist Roger Sheringham follows along, as Scotland Yard puts together a case against a burglar who added murder to his last job. These were the leisurely days when the professional criminals were all known and readily identifiable by their characteristic methods of operation.

   But Roger finds flaws in their· theories and strikes off on his own investigations, which increasingly point to an inside job. He also adds a secretary — the murdered woman’s niece — who mysteriously disclaims her rightful inheritance, and whom Roger finds secretly provoking in other ways as well.

   A nice bunch of clues and theories, which Roger conveniently lists at appropriate intervals, and which do provide a fitting solution to the discerning reader. But I think it’s the underlying happy twinkle which provides the most pleasure in this tale, well told.

Rating: A.

– Reprinted from The MYSTERY FANcier, January 1977 (Vol. 1, No. 1)

TAKE TWO. “Pilot.” ABC, 28 June 2018 (Season One, Episode One). Rachel Bilson (Sam Swift), Eddie Cibrian (Eddie Valetik). Created and written by Andrew W. Marlowe and Terri Edda Miller. Director: John Terlesky. Available for purchase on Amazon Prime Video.

   After her long-running cop show on TV (eight years) has been cancelled, and finished now with rehab (I didn’t catch the why), actress Sam Swift, still young and attractive, hopes to make a comeback in another series, one in which she would play a private eye. How to prepare for the role? Have her agent call in a favor and have real-life PI Eddie Valetik let her follow him around for a week to watch and learn.

   Eddie agrees, but only under protest. Who needs a washed up former TV star underfoot all day? Well, you know how that goes. Lots of sparks fly, but it is only inevitable that after they partner up like this for a while, Eddie grudgingly agrees that maybe, just maybe, she is more than a pretty face.

   Their first client? A man who thinks his daughter, on her own in L.A., may have been murdered.

   This first episode has all the depth, ambience, and wholesome charm of a Hallmark Channel TV mystery, and I doubt I need say a whole lot more than that. It isn’t bad, but that doesn’t mean that it’s going to be remembered, even by those who watched it. The series was apparently a summer replacement on ABC, and when the summer was over, so was the series, 13 episodes in all.




JIM TULLY – The Bruiser. Greenberg, hardcover, 1936. World, hardcover, 1943. Bantam #67, paperback, 1947. Pyramid #53, paperback, 1952. Kent State University Press, softcover, 2010.

   “He was a broth of a boy — as weak as water and strong as a broken dam.”

   What a quote, right? Tully can really turn a phrase.

   The book’s about the rise and rise of Shane Rory, from hobo to heavyweight boxing champion of the world.

   There are terrifically vivid, livid scenes of the fights and the backstory, the training, the gambling. And the language rings true. Truly wonderful vintage vernacular, written by a road kid and pugilist of his own experiences and things he’d heard.

   The problems come when Tully tries to weave in a typical Hollywood melodrama. Shane Rory dreams of a pure midwestern maiden from his youth — and she of him. And at the end their shy romance finally blossoms — just as he wins the heavyweight belt. He immediately cedes the belt (to a hobo friend from his youth, no less) and leaves with the maiden for her pure and fertile farm she has just inherited from her grandmother. Fade to black with violins. Roll credits. Yech.

   Anywho, the getting there is still worth the trip for the clipped true prose of the street.

   Some more pith from the book:

   “You’re a nice looking kid — how long you been a bum?” “Ever since I can remember,” was the answer. “And you?” He turned to Negro.” “Afore that.”

   “I hits ’im so hahd I jes’ blas’ his brains right outta de top o’ his head—if dem ropes haden been deah — he’d be a rollin’ yit.”

   “I’m just oozin’ out of the picture like I oozed into it.”

   “It’s a rough world Shane — as warm as the very devil when the referee’s raisin’ your hand, and cold as a hangman’s heart when he ain’t.”

   “His brains begun to rattle like dry peas in a pod.”

   “Let it be forgotten like a flower is forgotten; forgotten as a fire that once was singing gold.”

   “Now you’ve got everything — but for God’s sake don’t develop brains. That’s what kills people.”

   “When life itself is a lie one more or less won’t matter.”

   “Even the hangman’s under sentence of death.”

   “Where was Moses when the lights went out? Sitting in the window with his shirt tail out.”

   “We’re both Irish and we have traditions: a kindlier race never tore a man to bits.”

   “Your mother’s ghost — if you weren’t hatched out of a buzzard’s egg — would haunt you.”

   “All you have to do is wring the diapers of your mind.”

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