Monday, 1 September 2014

The Mystery Of The Magic Circle, by M. V. Carey

Since 2014 marks the fiftieth anniversary of The Three Investigators being published, I thought it’d be enjoyable to re-read and compile my Top 10 (which might be subject to change in years to come, of course).  I previously read all 30 of the original series from 2008 to 2010 (a reading and reviewing odyssey that I blogged here), but this time I will concentrate on my favourite books and try to whittle the best ten from that.

So here we go.
Collins Hardback First Edition (printed in 1979 and never reprinted), cover art by Roger Hall
Suddenly Bob cried, “Something’s burning!”

The next moment a great billow of smoke gushed into the room, nearly suffocating them.  coughing and choking, Jupiter peered into the hall - it was a seething, glowing inferno.

“There’s no way out!” he sobbed.  “We’re trapped!”

When the memoirs of a famous actress mysteriously disappear, The Three Investigators are sure they can track down the thief.  But they soon discover that someone else has other plans - and that their adversary is determined to destroy the manuscript and its secrets forever…

Working for the summer in the mail room of Amigos Press, The Three Investigators are quickly drawn into a mystery surrounding the (potentially explosive) autobiographical manuscript of now-recluse movie star Madeline Bainbridge.  When the office is burned down - quite literally around them - it coincides with a robbery at a film restoration lab next door, of the negatives of Ms Bainbridges films which have recently been sold to television.  When the manuscript - hand-written and the only one in existence - is also stolen, the boys are hired by Amigos Press publisher ‘Beefy’ Tremayne to try and find it and the trail leads them to a lonely house in the hills, a haunted wood and mysterious happenings from the past.

Another strong entry in the series from M. V. Carey and it’s been one of my favourites since I first read it in 1983 (I have the 1982 Armada paperback).  Back then - as now - I got the impression from their working at Amigos Press (as Bob says “the private detective business is slow this summer, we thought we’d get some experience with office work”), that Carey was writing them as slightly older and I think it works really well.  The book also has a nice attitude - shared by Jupe - towards old-time Hollywood that really grounds this in reality.

With only the briefest appearance by Aunt Mathilda and Uncle Titus (Jupe watches the morning news programme with them, as it features the Amigos Press fire) and no mention of Headquarters, the action is all centred around Santa Monica and Hollywood and the locations are well used, especially as some of them are slightly grimier than you’d expect.  The Golden Age of Hollywood is written well, giving Madeline Bainbridge a nicely constructed and believable history.  Dabbling in the art of witchcraft, she headed a coven and regularly held Sabats, with her boyfriend Ramon Desparto dying after one of them in an accident she blames herself for (and which led to her withdrawing from public life).  She’s a great, if little-seen, character and Jupe’s observation at one point that she’s “a sleeping beauty in an enchanted castle” fits perfectly, though she is a bit too trusting of the boys as events develop later in the book.

As well written as ever, this has some excellent set pieces - the sabat the boys spy on, the haunted wood, the incident in the wreckers yard and the fire that opens the mystery - and the characterisation is vivid and sharp, with even the minor members of the coven having distinctive personalities.  Beefy Tremayne is well observed as are Jefferson Long - a minor actor with Bainbridge, now a famous crime reporter - and Marvin Gray, Bainbridge’s chaffauer who has an unpleasant air from the start.  Starting with a bang, this has a good pace, a concise plot that unravels well, a nicely nostalgic atmosphere and the boys interplay is brilliant.  Great fun, a terrific read, this is very highly recommended.

Armada format b paperback (published in 1981, last reprinted in 1982), cover art by Peter Archer
(cover scan of my copy)

There were no internal illustrations for the UK edition, which is a shame as I'm sure Roger Hall would have done a great job.

Thanks to Ian Regan for the artwork (you can see more at his excellent Cover Art database here)

Friday, 29 August 2014

Flashback Friday - friends and conventions (part two)

Back in June (on this post, if you're interested), I made the point that I'm somewhat of a documentarian and love taking photographs and keeping a visual record of family, friends and events that link us.  What kicked the post off was finding a load of old Convention pics, which all spoke volumes of camaraderie and good friends and they seem to have made a lot of people smile.

So in a similar spirit (and because I'm off to FantasyCon next Friday) and as this is Flashback Friday, here are some more Con pics featuring good friends and good times.

from left - Joe Rattigan, John B. Ford, Mark Samuels, me - Stuart Young is in front
Rainfall Writers at the BFS Open Night, the Princess Louise, Holborn, December 2003 
FantasyCon 2008, Britannia Hotel, Nottingham
Three of the "We Fade To Grey" gang - me, Simon Bestwick, Gary McMahon
FantasyCon 2010, Britannia Hotel, Nottingham - me, Simon Marshall-Jones, David Price
FantasyCon 2011, Brighton
Enjoying (or not, as the case may be) a pizza at the end of the pier with Mandy Edwards, Stuart Hughes, Richard Farren Barber and David Price
Alt-Fiction, Leicester, 2012 with Sue Moorcroft
Also at Alt-Fiction, Leicester 2012, with Johnny Mains
FantasyCon 2012, Brighton
enjoying the disco with, amongst others, Peter Mark May, Lee Harris, Paul Melhuish, Simon Kurt Unsworth and Robert Spalding
WFC 2013, Brighton
Admiring Neil Bond's autographs with Steven Chapman and Ruth Booth
WFC 2013, Brighton.  Steve Bacon & I in the mirror...
Andromeda One, Birmingham 2013
me, Dave Jeffery, Phil Sloman, James  Everington, Steve Harris

All of my Convention reports can be found at this link

Thursday, 28 August 2014

The End, by Gary McMahon

In a break from my usual way of presenting reviews, here I'm going to talk about a book that I think is not only excellent, but absolutely worth a read if you love the horror genre.  The thing is, I read it in 2010, to critique it for Gary and so my review is fairly short but the imagery has stayed firmly with me these past four years and I'm really looking forward to reading it again.

Forget zombies, they were only the beginning... This is The End A strange suicide plague grips the city of London, tearing apart the fabric of society. To escape this madness, a small group of strangers must journey north in search of safety. Everyone and everything must eventually come to an End, but in this case it happens quicker and with more savagery than anyone could ever have imagined. When chaos reigns and things start to fall apart, The End might be closer than you think...and sometimes The End is really the beginning of something much worse...

Test cover I made in 2010, so Gary & I
could post images of the book
Mack Booth and his business partner are in London when something happens, driving 75% of the population to either commit suicide or try to kill themselves and as many bystanders as possible.  Assembling a ragtag band of fellow travellers - Becky, his business partners lover, Bob from the hotel and Manisa, who they meet on the way - he heads north, to his cottage on the moors where his heavily pregnant, blind wife is waiting for him.

This is an astonishing book, short and lean, that doesn’t pull any punches as it follows our heroes up country - it’s brutal, gory, poignant, unpleasant, bleak, uncomfortable, hopeful and above all else, never less than believable.  I read this in draft, to deliver a critique and it’s the first time I’ve ever done that and had to struggle to find anything seriously wrong with the ms.

An excellent book, well worth the read and if this doesn’t win awards, there’s no justice.

For a full review, please check out Jim Mcleod's at The Ginger Nuts of Horror website.

The book, from Ian Whates' NewCon Press, can be picked up from Amazon here

Tuesday, 26 August 2014

The Wedding Proposal, by Sue Moorcroft

In a new edition of the occasional series (but in a completely different genre this time), I want to tell you about a book that I've read and loved.  Like I say, it's not horror but if you give it a chance, I think you'll enjoy it as Sue Moorcroft delivers a great story once again.

Can a runaway bride stop running?

Elle Jamieson is an unusually private person, in relationships as well as at work – and for good reason. But when she’s made redundant, with no ties to hold her, Elle heads off to a new life in sunny Malta.

Lucas Rose hates secrets – he prides himself on his ability to lay his cards on the table and he expects nothing less from others. He’s furious when his summer working as a divemaster is interrupted by the arrival of Elle, his ex, all thanks to his Uncle Simon’s misguided attempts at matchmaking.

Forced to live in close proximity, it’s hard to ignore what they had shared before Lucas’s wedding proposal ended everything they had. But then an unexpected phone call from England allows Lucas a rare glimpse of the true Elle. Can he deal with Elle’s hidden past when it finally comes to light?

Elle Jamieson has been made redundant from her high-flying IT post and decides to put off future career plans for a while.  Instead, she accepts an offer from her friend Simon, to live on his boat for a few months in Malta, au-pairing (which doesn’t, I found out, just mean looking after children) for friends of his and helping out volunteering at a local centre for kids.  However, when she arrives at ‘The Shady Lady’, she discovers that her ex, Lucas Rose, is also on board.  He is Simon’s nephew and neither of them want to move out, so as they adjust to close proximity to one another, after four years apart, it appears that secrets from the past might finally get unearthed.

I’m a big fan of Moorcroft’s writing and this is another cracking novel from her, filled with clearly defined (and mostly likeable) characters, told at a cracking pace and with a sure hand.  Shifting the location from her beloved villages around Peterborough to the sunny and bright ports of Malta is inspired and her use of location and atmosphere makes you feel the heat and the dust.  The Nicholas Centre, where Elle is volunteering by running the IT suite, is well used and feels real and introduces Carmelo, an 8-year-old who takes a shine to our heroine.  He’s a wonderful character, charming and warm and sad all at the same time and he really affected me.  The central romance is well played and raunchy, with both characters never less than believable, even as the secrets begin to unfurl themselves and family connections become strained.

Elle is independent and spirited and Lucas, a hero in the Moorcroft mould, grows in stature as the book progresses and his backstory comes out in snippets.

Well written and paced, making great use of fresh locations, this is a fantastic read and one I would highly recommend.

Friday, 15 August 2014

Nostalgic for my childhood - The Fall Guy

Last year, I started a thread called “Nostalgic for my childhood” (you can find the others using this link), covering books and films and various things that I remember fondly  It’s a thread I'm planning to continue anyway, but this edition sort of came out of the blue.

Those who follow me on Facebook will know I had a cardio issue last week which meant I had to take it easy for while.  It just so happens that the week before that, I bought the season one box-set of “The Fall Guy”, having found it on ebay (I can’t remember now why I’d been looking).  Back in the day I loved that show and - trying to keep away from the news - I binge-watched it over the week.  Dude joined me for a lot of them and we finished the whole 22 episode run on Sunday and he wanted to go straight back into it, whilst I decided this was a prime candidate for my “Nostalgic for my childhood” thread.

“The Fall Guy” was a Glen A. Larson production (the early episodes have bronchial voice-over man saying that over the final production credit) that ran for five series (I’m English, it should be series and not seasons) from November 4th 1981 until May 2nd 1986 for a total of 112 episodes.  The genesis of it, according to Larson, came from his friend David Somerville (they used to be in bands together) who wrote “The Ballad Of The Unknown Stuntman” for a documentary in 1979.  Larson and Somerville pitched the series by playing the song and saying the hero was stuntman and bounty-hunter, which got them a greenlight.  Larson met Lee Majors in an airport (the two knew each other as Larson executive produced the early series of “The Six Million Dollar Man”) and signed him up without the star having seen so much as a script.  Majors went on to co-produce the show (“he ran the set well,” Larson said in interview, “everyone got on, it was relaxed and the work got done”), sing the theme song (which was adapted to include more current names), do a lot of stuntwork himself and lead a series that, he hoped, would clear Steve Austin from peoples minds.

For my part, I was a massive fan of “The Six Million Dollar Man” and Lee Majors was one of my favourite actors at the time, so he was completely my draw for “The Fall Guy”, as I’m sure he was for many other people.

The pilot episode was written by Larson and directed by Russ Mayberry and the remainder of the series was mostly written by David Brafff and Nick Thiel who, for the 1981/82 first season, also acted as script editors (they were replaced from the second series on).  Alongside the theme (credited to Somerville, Larson and Gail Jenson), US series stalwart Stu Philips provided the soundtrack.
The first series cast - from left, Heather Thomas, Lee Majors, Douglas Bar, Jo Ann Pflug
Heather Thomas makes her entrance
“The Fall Guy” was about a Hollywood stunt man, Colt Seavers (played by Majors) who moonlighted as a bounty hunter, mainly picking up bail jumpers who’d skipped on Samantha “Big Jack” Jack (played by Jo Ann Pflug in the first series - Markie Post as Terri replaced her from series two and although Samantha is mentioned, she’s never seen again), using his physical skills and knowledge of stunts to catch fugitives and criminals.  In the pilot episode, we’re introduced straight away to Colt’s young cousin Howie Munsen (played by Douglas Barr), who wants to be both a stuntman and Colt’s manager (Seavers often refers to him as “kid”) and is portrayed as a kind of educated goof at first (though his character matures across the first series).  We are also introduced to Jody Banks (Heather Thomas), a young stuntwoman Colt has taken under his wing and even though she’s often seen in the thick of film action, she doesn’t have a lot to do otherwise (in the first series at least) other than provide sex appeal.  She does have a moment, coming through some batwing doors, that not only became her credit clip in subsequent series but was also a defining moment for this 12-year-old boy watching.
series 2-5 cast, with Markie Post replacing Jo Ann Pflug
The first series opened each episode with an introduction from Lee Majors (as Seavers) explaining about stuntmen and that he couldn’t make a full-time living from it so also worked as a bounty hunter.  This sequence ran over stock footage of various stunts, from the 20s to the then-present day (the voice-over was dropped after the first series) and would usually segue into Colt filming a stunt, before getting caught up in a case with Big Jack that was always more complicated than it first appeared.  The stock footage was taken from real Twentieth Century Fox films (they distributed the TV show and their clearly-identified backlot was often seen in the episodes), including “The Poseidon Adventure”, “Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry”, “Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid” and “Silver Streak”.  One clip, from the film “Sky Riders”, ironically enough showed James Coburn performing his own stunt, clinging to a helicopter skid as it flew high over a gorge.  The series also used stock footage from feature films to pad out/boost the budget in episodes.  Whilst this practise got more extreme the further into the run you went, it did also change the tone of some episodes.  In “The Snow Job”, for instance, avalanche footage from the 1978 film “Avalanche” was used, including some shots where the snow destroys a hotel that hadn’t been seen before.

As was usual in the 80s for series of this type, the car was an important part of the show (think Magnum and his Ferrari 308, BA Baracus and his van, Knight Rider and his Pontiac Trans Am) and The Fall Guy was no exception.  He drove a 1982 GMC K-2500 Wideside pick-up truck (interspersed, on occasion, with a 1980 K-25 Wideside) that looked fantastic, with a brown and tan two-tone paintjob and an eagle logo on the bonnet for the “Fall Guy Stuntman Association”.  The truck was often involved in high speed chases and huge jumps and these took their toll on the actual vehicles (one clip in the opening credits shows the axle clearly braking).  When the production had destroyed several trucks, GMC built a custom version with the engine moved back under the seats (“to properly balance it,” Lee Majors said in an interview), a reinforced frame, heavy duty axles and various other refinements.  After this, the number of trucks that had to be scrapped was greatly reduced.
The truck, in the first series, about to snap its axles...
The series was known for its frequent cameos by Hollywood celebrities (especially in the first series), with actors as themselves - everyone from Tom Selleck to Linda Evans - chatting with Colt Seavers.  In the pilot, James Coburn (a friend in real life of Majors) makes an appearance early on and there’s a touching scene near the end with Farrah Fawcett (who had separated from Majors by this time - in the late 70s, they were the ‘golden media couple’ and apparently remained friends until her death.  She appeared against her managers wishes to show the public they were divorcing on good terms).

The theme song became a minor hit in the early 80s (the singer is credited as Colt Seavers in a handful of the first series credits) and was very popular in Germany (though as Majors said in an interview, “everyone is popular over there”) and includes a nice touch in the lyrics with the line “I’ve been seen with Farrah”.

As I said, I was a big fan of the series - I had the annuals, a t-shirt and desperately wanted the truck - but I don’t remember watching it through to 1986 and, in fact, before we got hold of the DVD boxset, I only had sketchy memories at best.  The first and second series are available on DVD though the others haven’t been released “due to lack of demand”, which seems a real shame.

As I write this, Dude & I have watched all of the first series and six episodes of the second (which is a lot more humorous, in tone, with some great one-liners from Majors).  The first thing I noticed, binge-watching, is a key Larson trait, wherein quite a few shots are recycled over the year (generally of the truck driving about).  Locations are also re-used frequently, which can be quite entertaining and some actors also appear more than once and as a different character altogether.  Distinctive looking character actor Dennis Fimple, for instance, plays deputy sheriff Renfo in “The Pilot” and is also one of the Rio Brothers - Bobby - in “The Japanese Connection”.  Chuck Hicks, a big character actor regularly cast at the time as a heavy, was a recurring thug who our heroes usually encountered just in time for a brawl whilst Terry Kiser (who was Bernie in the “Weekend At…” films) was a director in “The Pilot” and a thug in “The Rich Get Richer”.  As a recurring character, Judith Chapman played Kay Faulkner, an insurance investigator, who tangled with Colt in “The Rich Get Richer”, “Goin’ For It!” and “Three For The Road” - all of them in the first season plus “Death Boat” in the second.  The series also featured some genre stars and they got plenty of good screentime, from Sid Haig to Martine Beswick, Chris Stone to Don Stroud.  An amusing, continuing joke is that the goodies listen to country music, whilst the baddies always listen to classical.

The cast have all said in interviews over the years that they not only got on well making the series but also still keep in touch.
Lee Majors, who was born in 1939, still acts occasionally, though he remains best known for his portrayal as Steve Austin (“The Six Million Dollar Man”) and Colt Seavers.
Douglas Barr was born in 1949, left acting in 1994 and now works as a writer and director and is also co-founder of Hollywood and Vine Cellars, a small, high-end Napa Valley winery.
Heather Thomas was born in 1957 and after a much-publicised battle with drug addiction left acting in 1998.  She is now a screenwriter, author and political activist.

I loved “The Fall Guy” the first time around and whilst it isn’t a classic piece of television (I’m a fan, not a fool), it is good fun and I enjoyed re-watching and re-discovering it with Dude.  Roll on series 2!

And now, I leave you with the series 2 opening credits complete with Lee Majors singing, the truck breaking its axle, James Coburn on a helicopter and Heather Thomas giving her character a great entrance.

Thursday, 14 August 2014

Drive, Dude and a guest blog

My complimentary copies of "Drive" arrived today, courtesy of Chris Teague at Pendragon Press and - if I do say so myself - they look very good indeed.  I asked Dude for a bit of a photo-opportunity and he agreed, opened the book and found enough swear words that I now owe him £4!  Ho hum.

In other news, my good friend Sue Moorcroft hosted me on her blog yesterday with a guest post, where I discuss how you can 'write what you know' when you're a horror author.  I had fun writing it and it seems to have gone down well, so if you have five minutes spare you might want to nip over (and Sue's blog is great anyway and well worth a read).

The guest blog can be found here.

It would be remiss of me not to mention the following too...

Wednesday, 13 August 2014

Hello Mr Hitchcock

Sir Alfred (Joseph) Hitchcock, who would have been 115 years old today, was born on Wednesday 13th August 1899 in Leytonstone, London.  His father was a greengrocer and poulterer (part of the reasoning to set "Frenzy" in Covent Garden was to capture a way of life that his father had known and which was just about to disappear altogether) and once sent a five-year-old Alfred to the local police station with a note asking the officer to lock him away for five minutes as punishment for behaving badly.  This incident triggered a lifetime fear of policemen and harsh treatments and wrongful accusations would become recurring themes in Hitchcock's films.

His career spanned over half a century and he quickly established a distinctive directorial style, pioneering camera moves (especially POV shots, to create a sense of voyeurism), shot framing and innovative editing techniques and many sleight-of-hand effects (most noticeably his use of matte paintings, which I blogged about here).  Best known for his mystery/suspense films, often with twist endings and a blunt view of violence, he frequently used "MacGuffins", a plot device with little or no relevance.  As Hitchcock explained, " crook stories it is almost always the necklace and in spy stories it is most always the papers" saying to Fran├žois Truffaut in their 1966 interview, "so you see that a MacGuffin is actually nothing at all."

He moved to Hollywood in 1939, feted as England's Best Director and became a US citizen in 1955.  Considered one of the most influential directors of all time, his work laid a template for suspense films that is still being followed and yet there was always a touch of humour to his work (however dark), such as his cameo appearances at the start of each film.

A major voice in film and TV, not to mention books and anthologies, Hitchcock's last film was "Family Plot" in 1976 and he died of renal failure on April 29th 1980.

me, with the Madame Tussauds model of Hitchcock, London 2003
I first became aware of Hitchcock through the Three Investigators mysteries, a series I've written about often on this blog, which was created by Robert Arthur, who also edited Hitchcock's horror/suspense anthologies.  Later, I remember seeing an advert for "Psycho", which was going to be shown on TV and my Mum telling me how scary she'd found the film when she first saw it, which just sparked my curiosity.

I can't remember which of his films I saw first - I hope it was "Psycho", but it was probably "North By Northwest" or "The Birds" - but I do know that I was an instant fan of his and some of his films - those already mentioned plus "Rear Window", "Vertigo" and "Frenzy" - feature heavily in my list of favourites.

To mark the occasion of his birthday, here's a selection of photographs (from my favourite films) of the Master at work.

Rear Window (1954)
With James Stewart and Grace Kelly on the fantastic set

Vertigo (1958)
With Kim Novak - I find this film unpleasant but can admire the artistry of it
North By Northwest (1959)
With Cary Grant
Psycho (1960)
With Janet Leigh during the shower scene
With Anthony Perkins
 The Birds (1963)
With screenwriter Evan Hunter (aka Ed McBain), who also wrote "Marnie"

Frenzy (1972)
Hitchcock's wife, Alma Reville, with the head that was due to be seen in the Thames (originally as his cameo appearance in the film)
With Barry Foster ("Lovely...") in Covent Garden

Thanks for the entertainment, good sir.