Monday 13 May 2019

Novelisation Review 1: "Vega$" by Max Franklin

The first of an occasional thread celebrating old-school paperback novelisations from the 70s and 80s, which are now mostly forgotten.  We're not talking great art but these books have their place - they were a fantastic resource from a time when you couldn't watch your favourite film or TV show whenever you felt like it - and I think they deserve to be remembered.

This time, I'm looking at Vega$, by Max Franklin, adapted from the US TV series.

Las Vegas private detective Dan Tanna is hired by a Merle & Loretta Ochs to find their runaway teenaged daughter, Marilyn Nedloe - it's not the first time she's made a break for the lights.  Tanna quickly locates her, only to find she's working as a prostitute for Larry Larry Johnson and when he breaks her free, discovers she doesn't want to go home.  It appears that her stepfather, Merle, has been coming on strong and Tanna doesn't like it.  But Marilyn has made a mistake and turned over a trick who is connected with the mob and soon Tanna is trying to discover who murdered her and Larry Larry.  In the meantime, he's trying to stop a conman fleecing the casino, act as bodyguard to a nightclub entertainer and buy a birthday gift for his secretary's daughter.

Dan Tanna is “a hard guy for hire in a hard-hearted town” according to the cover blurb and for the most part, that’s true.  Although the book maintains that Vegas is trying to keep itself clean (there’s no Mafia here), it doesn’t shy away from the sleazier side of things.  Marilyn Nedloe has turned to prostitution and although she’s of age looks younger and uses that to her advantage, which is uncomfortable (though never graphically explored) while some of the violence is harsh indeed.  Franklin has a snappy style, the story fairly rocks along but it does come unstuck in places, where you can see the need for a commercial break slotted into the flow of action.  The main story - Marilyn and Larry Larry and why they’re killed - is well handled, even if the ending is a bit brisk, but the sub-plots (the man trying to fleece the casino and the birthday business) aren’t much more than fillers.  I liked Tanna (and detected a sense of Spenser about him - and the Parker books were certainly around when this was written - especially with the gallantry but that might be because of the Urich connection), though everyone seems to know him and he seems to rely on the grace of various friends in police forces across the country to get information to crack the case.  The locations are well used, Vegas seems grubby in the daylight (and this was before the glitz explosion) but I thought the book let itself down in how it treats the female characters (you could argue it was the times but Franklin also wrote for “Charlies Angels”).  As it is, apart from Tanna’s main secretary Beatrice - who is well realised - the rest of the women are poorly sketched, especially Angie, Beatrice’s deputy, who is essentially an attractive bit of set dressing.  That aside, this is a prime novelisation, it’s brisk and no-nonsense, does what it says on the tin and is generally quite enjoyable.

The novelisation is based on the pilot episode, High Roller, written by Michael Mann.  I picked up my copy from Books and Pieces in Nottingham, on the Crusty Exterior gathering there (which you can read about here).

* * *
Judy Landers, Robert Urich, Phyllis Davis and Tony Curtis
Vega$ ran for three series, from April 1978 through to June 1981 and 69 episodes and appeared in the UK in November 1978.  Produced by Aaron Spelling, it was created by Michael Mann who’d worked on American TV in the mid-70s writing scripts for Police Story and Starsky & Hutch.  It appears he had little more to do with the series following the pilot he wrote and he clearly went on to bigger and better things.

The series was filmed entirely on location in Las Vegas (apart from special episodes set in Hawaii and San Francisco) and starred Robert Urich as private detective Dan Tanna, a VietNam vet on retainer to the Maxim Hotel run by Phillip Roth (played by Tony Curtis).  He lived in a props warehouse and parked his car - a red 1957 Ford Thunderbird convertible - inside (which is pretty much all I can remember about the series, other than the vehicles appearances in Corgi catalogues).  He was ably assisted by Bobby Borso (Bart Braverman) and his trusty secretaries Beatrice Travis (Phyllis Davis) and Angie Turner (Judy Landers), while Lt. David Nelson (Greg Morris) was his contact in the police force.  Tanna’s older sister Julie (played by Catherine Hickland) appears in the pilot and novelisation but didn’t feature for the remainder of the run.  Will Sampson played Harlon Twoleaf, Tanna's sergeant from his army days, but only appeared in the first series.

The name “Dan Tanna” came from Aaron Spelling’s favourite restaurant (though it was called Dan Tana’s), on Santa Monica Boulevard in West Hollywood, California.

* * *
Max Franklin was a pen name for the prolific pulp fiction writer Richard Deming.  Born in Des Moines, Iowa in 1915, he gained degrees from Washington University in St. Louis and the State University of Iowa, before being drafted into the army nine months before Pearl Harbour.  When he left service five years later, he sold a short story called The Juarez Knife to Popular Detective magazine.  It featured a tough, disabled private eye named Manville “Manny Moon” (he’d lost his leg in World War 2) who went on to appear in more stories across a range of detective pulp magazines.  In 1950, though his timing coincided with the collapse of the pulp market, Deming became a full-time writer and ended the 50s writing stand-alone novels as well as paperback originals featuring characters from Dragnet.  He created another series, featuring vice cop Matt Rudd, during the 60s and also wrote non-fiction.

In the early 70s, he became a key player in the tie-in market for popular TV shows, writing more than twenty paperback original novels for the likes of Mod Squad, Charlie’s Angels and Starsky & Hutch, as well as the novelisation for the 1974 film 99 44/100% Dead.

In additional to his output as Richard Deming, he also wrote as Emily Moor, Nick Morino, Ellery Queen (ten novels under the house name during the 60s), Max Franklin (for his novelisation work), Richard Hale Curtis and Halsey Clark.

Richard Deming died in 1983.

for further bibliographical details, Fantastic Fiction has a thorough section on him.

For a few years now, after finding out charity shops sometimes pulp old books because the market for them is so small, I've been collecting 70s and 80s paperbacks through secondhand bookshops, car boot sales and ebay.  I set up a thread for the horror titles (which you can see here) but novelisations were a rich vein in those decades, before the advent of home video, when viewers wanted to revisit the adventures of their favourite TV show or film.  I realise we might not be talking great art here but, on the whole, I think these books deserve to be remembered.

To that end, on an irregular basis, I'm going to review these "old-school" tie-ins with, hopefully, some background material on each one.

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