July 2023

ROBERT B. PARKER – Thin Air. Spenser #22. G.P. Putnam’s sons, hardcover, 1994. Berkley, paperback, April 1996. Reprinted many times. TV Movie: 2000, with Joe Mantegna as Spenser.

   One impolite way of describing this book is to say it isn’t the air that’s thin, but the plot, which if it were a song, it would consist of only one note: Sgt. Frank Belson is a cop and a good friend of Spenser’s and his wife Lisa is missing. Belson’s wife, that is. Spenser is not married, of course, but he does have Susan, and between them they own a dog named Pearl.

   Let’s back to Lisa. Spenser agrees to start looking for her. He may be able to look in places where Belson may have difficulty, and when the latter is shot three times and seriously injured, Spenser takes the job a lot more seriously. He does mot believe much in the idea of coincidence.

   And he is right. Lisa has been kidnapped by a former lover, a Latino gang lord who has taken her captive and who believes he can win her back.

   I am not telling you anything I should not be telling you. Parker tells the story from two perspectives, in alternating chapters: Spenser’s, as he tries to find her, and Lisa’s (in italics), as a prisoner.

   With all of any inherent mystery gone, it is up to Spenser to be clever, witty and charming enough to keep the pages turning. I’d say he does, but I know many friends who are not Spenser fans, and if you are one of them, you are free to disagree. I could say more about the story, but going back and reading what I’ve said before, I think I’ve already said the gist of it. From here on, you’re on your own.

TED WHITE – Phoenix Prime. Qanar #1. Lancer 73-476, paperback original; 1st printing, 1966. Cover art by Frank Frazetta.

   Max Quest awakes one morning with new paranormal powers. Hi plans for using them for the benefit of mankind are interrupted by the attacks of Others with the same powers. Unable to defeat him directly, they turn to his girl friend Fran and send her to the alternate world of Qanar.

   Max follows her rather than submit to being reduced to their level. After lengthy adventures, Max finds Fran and is able to return with her to defeat the Others, who have stunted their powers by failing to use them properly.

   The first fifty pages, as Max learns of his powers, with a detailed view of present-day New York City, are the most interesting, the most realistic. While certainly well done, the imaginative world of Qanar lacks the perception Ted White utilizes to describe the familiar.

   On page 162, the theory that man has lost his place in the system of nature conflicts with the idea that man can transcend his animalistic background. Must it be that man must take an additional evolutionary step to improve himself?

Rating: ****

— March-April 1968.


      The Qanar series —

1. Phoenix Prime (1966)
2. The Sorceress of Qar (1966)
3. Star Wolf! (1971)

  HAVE GUN WILL TRAVEL “The Vigil.” CBS, 16 September 1961 (Season 5, Episode 1). Richard Boone, Kam Tong. Gunest cast: Mary Fickett, George Kennedy, Dan Stafford. Teleplay: Shimon Wincelberg. Director: Andrew V. McLaglen. Current;y streaming on YouTube (see below),

   There is both very little to this story, and yet there is also quite a lot, and although nothing very surprising happens, it ends up in quite satisfying fashion, Contradictions? This adventure of the western PI-for-hire who calls himself Paladin is full of them.

   He is hired by an idealistic nurse straight out of nursing school to help her travel to a community desperately in need of medical assistance, but they have already turned down her offer of help. They want a doctor. They do not want a nurse, not a female one.

   She is going anyway.

   Not only is she idealistic she is hopelessly naive. (Perhaps they are the same thing.)

   Perhaps only a day or two into their journey, they encounter a campsite where they find two men having just finished burying a third under a pile of rocks. Paladin is suspicious, but the young nurse is willing to take their story at face value: that the dead man died from an arrow in the back during an Indian attack. Paladin sees the dead man’s shirt. No hole in the back. He was killed at noon and in the heat, he wasn’t wearing the shirt, he is told. It’s now late in the evening, Paladin responds. What took you so long to bury him? Let’s uncover the body, he suggests.

   Events ensue – Paladin is a gunfighter by trade, after all — and by the end of this 30-minute episode, the young lady nurse has learned a valuable lesson about life. Neatly done, although if you are so inclined, one might have to admit, perhaps a little too obviously so.




FRIDAY THE 13th, PART VI:  JASON LIVES (1986). Paramount Pictures, 1986. Thom Mathews, Jennifer Cooke, David Kagen, Kerry Noonan, Renee Jones), Tom Fridley, C.J. Graham (Jason). Written and directed by Tom McLoughlin.

   Earlier this week, my father and I had  the opportunity to attend a special screening of Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives. Which to some people probably doesn’t sound like much; after all, it was just another installment in the gruesome long-running slasher franchise which exploited suburban fears and terrors. Those people couldn’t be more wrong.

   Directed by Tom McLaughlin, in photo to the left, this entry in the Jason series is a clever, fun, and dare I say – meta – film that provides an equal amount of scares and self-referential laughs. With a Gothic vibe (the movie was filmed in semi-rural Georgia), Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives is, in many ways, an updated 1930s Universal Horror film. Here, Jason isn’t just a crazed man with a hockey mask; he’s a supernatural entity brought back from the dead. And it’s up to the person who resurrected him to put him back where he belongs; namely, dead in the infamous Crystal Lake.

   What made this viewing at the American Cinematique in Los Feliz CA particularly special was seeing director Tom McLaughlin introduce not only the film, but a large number of cast members, many of whom shared their experiences working on the project. [See photo below.] One thing that struck me was how he mentioned that he had no idea (and I certainly believe him) that, some 37 years later, people would be gathering en masse for a sold out screening of his sole entry into the franchise.

   Many consider this to be the best of the series, including all of the  fans watching it one more timein a sold-out theater,  It’s difficult to disagree.

Bonus: The soundtrack by Alice Cooper  gives the film some rebellious theatrical vibes that stay with you long after the lights come back on.



BENJAMIN APPEL – Brain Guy. Alfred A. Knopf, hardcover, 1934. Lion #39, paperback, 1950. Lion Library #151, paperback, 1957. Also published as The Enforcer (Belmont Tower, paperback, 1972). Stark House Press, softcover, 2005 (two-in-one edition with Plunder).

   The first in a trilogy (Brain Guy, The Power-House, and The Dark Stain) about the rise of a mob boss (Bill Trent) from Hell’s Kitchen.

   We start with Bill as a rent collector for a real estate agent. There’s a wink and a nod for the tenants with speakeasies and brothels, but you better not get caught by the cops. If you do, the agent will play dumb, blame it on the collector, and can them on the spot. Which happens to Bill.

   Now Bill is broke in the Depression, like everybody else. But he’s not like everybody else. He’s not gonna beg. He’s not gonna starve. He fancies he’s a Brain Guy. A guy with schemes.

   So he sells his schemes to one of the mobsters he used to collect the rent from. The scheme is this: Bill collected rent from all the stores in the neighborhood: the dress store, the meat store, the cheese store, the speaks. He knows when they’ve got their dough on hand. He knows just when to hit them.

   So that’s how he gets his start. Robbing all the tenants he used to rent collect.

   He hooks up with some muscle, takes a whore for his moll, and kills his way to the top.

   What’s a bit unique about the story is that we see all the self-doubt of Bill Trent. He nearly fails many times. He nearly gives up. He’s just playing by ear and he has no idea what he’s doing. He is fully conscious that all mob bosses are employees at will, their time is grossly indeterminate, and the termination notice is terminal. He’s just a guy filling a role: Brain Guy. And he’ll keep it til he gets knocked off by the next one. And so on.

   The story is nothing new, really. But it’s a well-done, credible, three dimensional picture of how a pretty ordinary guy becomes a monster. Never a monster in his mind. But in his actions. Always just doing what thinks he has to do to survive.

   There’s a nice quote on the cover from the New York Times saying it’s “written with the cold, corroding passion of one who has seen through the heart of human poverty and degradation and had all the softness and sham burned away.” Which seems to me as good a definition as any of hard-boiled prose. What was happening in the Poisonville’s of America during prohibition and the depression produced pockets of desperation. And desperation speaks with concision.

   When death is imminent, you don’t tend to use a lot of pretty adverbs and adjectives. You cut to the chase. Bullshit has a way of disappearing down the mouth of a gun. In Fight Club, there’s a scene where Tyler Durden holds up a convenience store cashier:

Tyler: Raymond, you’re going to die! Mom and dad are going to have to call up kindly doctor so and so. Pick up your dental records. Wanna know why? Because there’s gonna be nothing left of your face.

Tyler: What did you wanna be Raymond K. Hessel? The question, Raymond, was: What did you want to be!

Raymond K. Hessel: Veterinarian, veterinarian.

Tyler: That means you have to get more schooling.

Raymond K. Hessel: Too much school.

Tyler: Would you rather be dead?! Would you rather die? Here, on your knees in the back of a convenience store?

Raymond K. Hessel: No, please no!

Tyler: I’m keeping your license. I’m gonna check in on you. I know where you live. If you’re not on your way to becoming a veterinarian in six weeks you will be dead! Now run on home.

   [Raymond gets up and runs into the night.]

Tyler: Tomorrow will be the most beautiful day of Raymond K. Hessel’s life. His breakfast will taste better than any meal you and I have ever tasted.

   Heidegger talks of ‘being towards death’ — that only the constant thought of mortality keeps us authentic. Keeps us from collapsing into the idiot wind of idle chatter. Adorno says ‘to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric’. But my favorite formulation of the hard-boiled manner comes from The Misfit in Flannery O’Connor’s A Good Man is Hard to Find: “She would of been a good woman if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.”

   So there you have it. The book feels real. With hard-boiled patter. The better to think with. The better to speak with. The better to be authentic in the life you live.



JOHN GARDNER – The Werewolf Trace. Hodder & Stoughton, UK, hardcover, 1977. Doubleday, US, hardcover, 1977. Reprint editions include Bantam, US, paperback, 1978,

   What if post-war British intelligence had documentation that seemed to indicate that a recently naturalized citizen was, in fact, a sleeper Nazi agent? That the man in question was quite possibly the son of Joseph Goebbels and was now an heir apparent to the Hitler regime? That’s the basic premise of John Gardner’s The Werewolf Trace, an overall rather disappointing thriller that might have worked far better as a short story than as a full length novel.

   Vincent Cooling works for British intelligence, though he doesn’t much care for his bosses, nor for the “dirty tricks” of spycraft. Although tasked to read through voluminous files that point to the existence of “Werewolf,” a German child soldier now grown up to be a Nazi sleeper agent, he remains deeply skeptical and believes that his superiors are too obsessed with the Nazi past.

   Gardner paints a portrait of a man quite possibly more disturbed by the would-be intrusion into Werewolf’s privacy than by the prospect of an ideological fanatic living in economically depressed 1970s England. It doesn’t make for a compelling, sympathetic protagonist for which one wants to root.

   Enter Werewolf. He’s really a somewhat mild-mannered Scandinavian furniture importer living under the name Joseph Gotterson. He has a devoted wife, Sybil, and a young child, Helen. They live outside of London in a rural area. In a house that is purportedly haunted.

   Yes, you’ve read that right. Gardner chose, for whatever reason, to mesh the spy thriller with supernatural/ghost fiction. I’m all for experimentation in literature, but overall, blending the two here makes The Werewolf Trace lesser than the sum of its parts.

   That said, the writing is clear, concise, and allows for the reader to become fully immersed in the story. It’s just that the story drags on a bit; it really does not have the same degree of tension and excitement found in the comparable The Bormann Testament (1962) written by Jack Higgins or Frederick Forsyth’s excellent The Odessa File (1972), later turned into a movie starring Jon Voight.



FREQUENCY. New Line, 2000. Dennis Quaid, Jim Caviezel, Shawn Doyle, Elizabeth Mitchell, Andre Braugher and Noah Emmerich. Written by Toby Emmerich(?) Directed by Gregory Hoblit.

   This’ll grab ya, even as you feel your credulity strained. And we all know how painful that can be.

   Quaid and Caviezel carry the story very capably between them as a Firefighter who dies in a warehouse fire in 1969, and his now grown-up Policeman-son in 2000. A freak cosmic storm in 1969 and a matching event thirty years later (ouch!) enable them to contact each other when Caviezel comes across his dad’s old HAM radio just in time to warn him of the upcoming warehouse inferno (Owww!)

   But saving Daddy’s life triggers a host of unforeseen consequences involving a serial killer, the murder of their wife/mother, death by cancer, Quaid arrested for murder, and a lot more, all of which have to be fixed and re-fixed by father and son working across time together-yet-apart.

   This is the sort of thing that has to be done fast and gaudy to keep the viewer from switching channels in mid-movie disbelief. It also has to be clearly explained each frame of the way for said viewer to keep up with the constantly changing realities. And it also has to offer clear segues from past to present and back again.

   That’s an order of beanstalk dimensions, but Frequency  mostly succeeds, thanks in hefty part to the skillful editing of David Rosenbloom, who eases things through with graceful and easy-to-grasp transitions. And it’s a good thing we got ’em because the screenplay, though credited solely to Toby Emmerich, shows the work of many hands.

   It’s not that there are loose ends — more like dead ends. Plot developments terminated abruptly, characters who arrive late and leave early, and a ninth-ending come-from-behind plot twist that just hasn’t been prepared for.

   But somehow I found myself forgiving all this for the sake of some really ingenious ideas, and the pace and style with which Frequency  delivers them.


JOHN BIRKETT – The Last Private Eye. Michael Rhineheart #1, Avon, paperback original; 1st printing, March 1988.

   I bought this book because of the title. Unfortunately, Michael Rhineheart is “the best private investigator in Louisville,” which is bad news, as far as I am concerned. Louisville means horses. And horse racing, and doped horses, and rigged odds, and what a bore.

   Nothing here to change my mind. Rhineheart is “cool,” shrugs a lot, and wanders around with his fly open, Even though the bad guys are obvious, their undoing is only due to bad luck and their own bad temperaments. Rhineheart has nothing at all to do with it.

– Reprinted from Mystery.File.6, June 1988.


Bibliographic Update: There was a second book in the series, The Queen’s Mare (Avon, 1990), but not a third.

RAWHIDE. “Clash At Broken Bluff.” CBS, 02 November 1965 (Season 8, Episode 8). Clint Eastwood, Paul Brinegar, Steve Raines, L. Q. Jones. Guest Cast: Ron Randell, Nancy Gates, Warren Stevens. Teleplay by Louis Vittes. Directed by Charles Haas. Currently available on YouTube.

   By some sheer coincidence, even on a TV show taking place in the past and the far West such as this one, the primary subject matter is voting rights: who should have the right to vote in an upcoming election, or more importantly, who should not. In this case, the women of Broken Bluff are demanding the same right at the polls as the men in the cattle drive who just happen to be in the county on election day.

   To that end, the town’s more nefarious leaders are premising the cowboys much needed supplies – not to mention free beer – if (and only if) they will vote their way. On the other hand, the leader of the women’s marches is a young widow whose land the cattle must cross while making their way north.

   It is a dilemma, if not an impasse, and it is complicated even further by Rowdy Yates’ attraction to the lady. (It is, of course, a young Clint Eastwood who plays the trail boss, and the lady is very attractive.)

   There’s not a lot more than an hour’s entertainment that’s intended here. The right of women to vote had long been settled in history books, even in 1965. The rest of the tale is what viewers sat down to see, and to that end, there was plenty of other old-fashioned western drama and romance in this episode to say they got their money’s worth.

FREDERIK POHL “Servant of the People.” First published in Analog SF, February 1983. Collected in Midas World (St, Martin’s Press, hardcover, 1983) and Platinum Pohl (Tor, hardcover, 2003). Reprinted in The Best Science Fiction of the Year #13, edited by Terry Carr (Baen, paperback, August 1984). Nominated for a Hugo for Best Short Story, 1984.

   Sometime in the near future, standing at a point in time circa 1983, a US Congressman, having served in that role for over twenty terms, begins his campaign for yet another election cycle. Although it is becoming harder, he enjoys campaigning, meeting people, kissing babies, endless meals out at greasy diners, the whole bit.

   To his mind, his greatest achievement is having been instrumental in passing a law allowing robots to vote, even those coming fresh off the assembly line.

   Imagine his loving wife’s consternation, then, when they discover his newest opponent is … a robot itself.

   Given this basic premise, I have a feeling that everyone reading this will have their ow ideas of how the story should take place from here. And I also suspect it won’t be very much different from the one I imagined it would be, which in turn was awfully close to the one that SF Grand Master Frederik Pohl wrote.

   Speaking for myself only, the story Pohl wrote is yards better than anything I might have come up with. While not up there at, say a Hemingway level, Pohl was a master of crisp clear prose with a keen visionary and often sardonic  eye on what the future might bring for this country, if not the entire world.

   The only thing wrong with this tale, from my point of view is the premise. Passing a law in this country that would allow robots to vote? No way, no how.

   This is a theoretical exercise only. A “what if” proposition carried to a logical conclusion, and of course, there’s nothing wrong with that. To my mind, it’s precisely what serious science fiction is/was designed to do.

Rating: B plus

PostScript: I read this in Terry Carr’s Best of the Year anthology for 1983, published exactly forty years ago. That’s a nice round number. I will have to wait and see, but at the moment I’m planning to  continue working my way through it and reporting back here as I go. Don’t change that dial!

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