Amber Blake

Amber Blake 1 Variant Cover

Headlines about billionaires engaged in sex trafficking and rampant abuse of underage girls make a comics series feel all too uncomfortably real. Case in point: IDW Publishing’s current Amber Blake series, written by Jade Lagardere and drawn by Butch Guice, with inking, coloring and lettering assistance by Mike Perkins, Christa Miesner, Robbie Robbins and Dan Brown.

Only a toddler, Amber’s left on a bleak orphanage’s doorstep. Several years later, she and bestie Amanda are given the chance to live in one of billionaire Arnav Aslam’s Cleverland institutions: Opulent, state of the art living and educational campuses located around the world and intended to gather together gifted youngsters in order to cultivate the next generation of leaders in the arts, sciences, business, government and technology. But even in Cleverland hallowed halls, Amber and Amanda are forced to endure the evil headmaster’s abuse, and after graduation, Amber vows to get her revenge. Three issues in, Amber Blake finds herself enlisted as an agent of a secret paramilitary/espionage organization, which she embraces in order to track the elusive headmaster, only to discover that she’s being used and that the head of the organization is none other than her presumed benefactor, Arnav Aslam, whose billions can buy more than power.

 

Amber Blake is another in an expanding number of magazine-sized comics series, blending some taut action sequences with a bit of suspense, a dash of romance and an overall thought provoking storyline that feels, in part, ripped right form current headlines (though obviously it was written months and months ago). Amber herself is determined and capable, tough but vulnerable, and definitely not a superhero, which is refreshing. I’m looking for to the next issues. Check it out.

 

This Is A Stickup.

A Half Interest In Murder 1960 raymond johnson cover copy

I’ve never been a victim of a crime. Not really. Not violent crime, at any rate.

Our home was broken into twice when I was a teenager, our garage on another occasion. Such is life in the city. Fresh out of college, my nifty new car was stolen, found two months later in a snowbank in rural Indiana, stripped and vandalized. A few years later, my workplace was broken into, once in the city with some professional camera gear stolen, and once again when out in the suburbs, some computer equipment taken and needless vandalism done, the crooks probably kids since they only stole whatever was closest to the door and left all the valuable stuff behind. That time the suburban police ‘invited’ everyone at work to be fingerprinted, which was actually pretty interesting. (They were investigating a string of break-ins in the area, but nothing ever came of it.) I’ve had SE European ID thieves whack both a company charge card and a personal credit card on separate occasions, with lots of charges rung up quickly, none of which I was responsible for.

But I’ve never had a gun pointed at me, never been mugged or assaulted, stalked or abused, thank God. The incidents listed above barely qualify me to claim that I’ve been a crime victim for a jury duty voir dire (though it did get me out of sitting on a jury once…whew).

So, this hardly qualifies as a ‘crime’, but…

Chris The Story Reading Ape's Blog

Check out Chris The Story Reading Ape’s Blog (link below) and his 7.11.19 post “Copyright Infringement, Again!”. The excellent “Reader-Writer-Resources-& More” blog featured a post from poet Kevin Morris’ K Morris – Poet blog (link below) about Kiss Library (kisslibrary.net). Morris occasionally browses online to see if his work has appeared anywhere or snagged a review, which I suspect many of us do. He was shocked to discover one of his titles for sale on Kiss Library — for which he never granted permission, listed the title, uploaded files, or will receive any payment. Browsing further about Kiss Library, he uncovered (not surprisingly) posts and articles which seemed to indicate that the site was, at best, questionable, accused of listing pirated eBooks and PDF downloads. Morris’ post provides a link to Sara F. Hawkins – Attorney At Law’s site (link below) and then Dale Cameron Lowry’s site (again, link below) for more info about Kiss Library, the DMCA (Digital Millennium Copyright Act) and the pretty complex process an author or publisher can pursue to attempt to get an ISP to remove illegally appropriated content. Follow the links, read up on it, but I’m sure you’ll agree: It ain’t easy.

K Morris - Poet Blog

I’ve read quite a bit lately about pirated content being sold on Amazon in particular, and the frustration authors and publishers – large and small alike—have with the online behemoth’s failure to police things better. We read about them so much because they’re so big. Clearly there may be others. Intrigued, I went to Kiss Library myself, and plugged in a prior pen name of mine.

Sure enough, two books popped up, both for sale as eBooks and downloadable PDF’s. I’d never even heard of Kiss Library, and definitely never listed any books there, authorized them to sell my work, or received a notice or payment from them. Basically, they were stolen, if not by the site, then by someone stealing the content and cover art images and listing them at Kiss Library.

Bottom line: Theft. Grrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr.

Dale Cameron Lowry

Sarah F Hawkins

“The Stiletto Gumshoe” — the first completed novel, its halfway completed sequel and a hoped-for noirishly hard-boiled P.I. series — are my current projects. But I’m not entirely new to writing or publishing, though hardly a seasoned pro. Working under a pen name, I’ve had a number of short stories published in chapbooks, zines, magazines and anthologies, each of which snagged darn good reviews along with payment commensurate with those kinds of venues. I’ve had three novels published by a small press. One sold out its first and second printing and was an award nominee. The other two sold out their print runs, and one of them sold foreign rights (though only for one country). All garnered excellent reviews which I’m still quite proud of. But like many small presses, that one disbanded. Nonetheless, I made respectable money, sold around 10,000 copies altogether, held onto my reviews, and some time later, put two of those novels out on my own, even able to access the original cover art files for one of the books, creating new art for the other. (Doesn’t hurt to work in the marcom profession for the day job and have all the proper software for building cover art, formatting text, etc.) Both books went up as eBooks and POD hard copy editions at Amazon and Barnes & Noble. I don’t ‘market’ or promote them, had no expectations of selling many, but just didn’t want cherished early work that I was still proud of to simply vanish. So, every couple of months I get a direct deposit or two, enough to buy a Grand Slam breakfast at Denny’s or to feel less guilty when I splurge at a bookstore. And for me, that’s good enough.

As for Kiss Library? The two books listed there as of 7.11.19 were both the reformatted editions of my own, not the original small press publisher’s versions, selling for $5.97 and $5.86 US (the cheapskates). I read that Kiss Library is located in The Republic Of Belarus (formerly Byelorussia) sandwiched between Poland, Lithuania and Russia (Minsk is the capital, if that helps the geographically challenged). However, on its site, it lists its location in Canada. I screen-capped the page with my two books, so I have a record of that. But when I returned to the site on 7.13.19, they were gone, with no info appearing by title or author searches.

Think I should’ve ordered one of each to see what I actually would receive? Oh sure, like I’m going to hand over credit card info to what may be a questionable pirated content site. I’ll pass.

But the point of this lengthy link-filled post is this: Clearly some of the visitors and followers of this blog are writers. I’ll bet you periodically search your own work online (and if you say you don’t, I say you’re fibbing). Keep an eye out for Kiss Library. If you feel brave, pop over to see if your work appears there. And keep an eye out in general for pirated content everywhere.

Hopefully C. J. Thomas’ The Stiletto Gumshoe series will sell at some point (and soon, I say with fingers crossed) and not just to some micro-publisher. But who knows what may occur, or if I’ll find myself buried in Adobe Illustrator, InDesign and Acrobat files again,  formatting my work for Amazon, B&N and elsewhere. But if I do, I’m sure as hell going to keep an eye out for crooks. And I do plan to revisit Kiss Library once in a while to see what’s up or if my titles mysteriously reappear.

Multiple links below…

Chris The Story Reading Ape’s Blog:

https://wordpress.com/read/feeds/10519297/posts/2341125149

Kevin Morris’ kmorris – Poet Blog:

https://kmorrispoet.com/2019/07/11/copyright-infringement-again/

Sara F. Hawkins – Attorney At Law Blog (How To File A DMCA Take Down Notice):

https://sarafhawkins.com/how-to-file-dmca-takedown/

Dale Cameron Lowry’s Blog:

https://www.dalecameronlowry.com/piracy-alert-seller-stealing-books-kisslibrary-com/

Illustration at the top: Raymond Johnson’s illustration for A Half Interest in Murder, 1960

 

Cruel Summer

criminal number six cover

Issue number five of Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips’ always magnificent Criminal commences a new storyline called “Cruel Summer, apparently planned from the very beginning of the Criminal series. It opens here with private investigator Dan Farraday’s pickup lines rebuffed by an attractive single woman in a hotel lounge. When she cautiously relents, we discover that this ‘Jane Hanson’ is actually Marina Kelly, the very woman Farraday’s been hired to locate. Things don’t go precisely as planned with the hotel bar pickup, any more than Farraday’s investigation did, but then this is an Ed Brubaker story, so of course things don’t go precisely as planned. Evidently, issues six and seven will switch gears and zero in on other familiar Criminal characters, notably Teeg Lawless, before bringing things back full circle with Farraday and Marina. Phillips’ art is brilliant, as always. Brubaker’s script doesn’t exhibit one wasted word that I can see. Like every issue of Criminal before, I’m hungering for the next installment the moment I close the comic’s back cover. Phillips’ cover art for that issue – Issue Number Six – is shown above.

Like most (all?) issues of Criminal, this one includes excellent extras, here a roundtable discussion on crime fiction (and media) series characters with Ed Brubaker, Jason Starr, Alex Segura and Sara Gran. Heck, even if you didn’t care for crime comics, the issue’s worth buying for that alone.

criminal number 6

The Missing Witness

perry peterson the missing witness 1954 copy

Perry Peterson (1908-1958) enjoyed a successful career doing illustrations for the more prestigious ‘glossies’ like the Saturday Evening Post, Liberty and Ladies Home Journal, so you won’t find his work on tawdry crime pulps, or even very many paperback covers for that matter. Romantic or comical (or both combined) couples were Peterson’s stock in trade, and he did it well. Still, you sense that the artist might have longed for the occasional mystery subject, and clearly had a nice touch with painting a sense of fear, impending threat and danger, as in his 1954 illustration for “The Missing Witness” by John and Ward Hawkins shown above (the full two-page spread below), plus several other examples shown here.

perry peterson the missing witness 1954

Sadly, Peterson passed away at only 50, his career cut short when magazine illustration assignments and PBO covers were still in demand, so we’ll never know what he might have done with less ‘lighthearted’ subjects. Stunning work from one of the lesser known mid-twentieth century masters, though, aren’t they?

Perry peterson 2Perry peterson 3

 

 

 

‘Bad Times’ Was A Good Time

I’m usually the last one to see any current movies, often as not streamed or on disk instead of herded into the multiplex. Case in point: Drew Goddard’s 2018 stylish neo-noir Bad Times At The El Royale. Released not long before Halloween 2018, my own sale rack DVD was tossed in my bag for a weekend getaway where cable, broadband, WiFi (or even a land line) was unavailable. So I finally saw it a week and a half ago. If I recall a brief Autumn 2018 marketing blitz, it didn’t seem to pay off at the box office. Still, the film’s been well reviewed, and I’ll add my own thumbs-up for Goddard’s Quentin Tarantino homage (well, that’s what it seemed like to me).

El Royale Intro

A brief intro’s muted palette and its unexpected jolt of mayhem alerts viewers that they’re in for a smart bit neo-noirish fun.

And the film delivers, as a traveling salesman, a Catholic priest, a singer and a smart-mouthed hippie converge on the El Royale, a peculiar and nearly deserted (its gaming license recently evoked) resort hotel straddling the Nevada-California state line. But no one’s who they seem to be, including the kinda-creepy desk clerk, apparently the only staff on site. Jon Hamm’s salesman is really an FBI agent. Jeff Bridges’ priest is actually a paroled bank robber, Dakota Johnson’s hippie is on the run from a Manson Family style cult, her little sister drugged and tied up in the car trunk. Lewis Pullman’s creepy guilt-ridden perv of a desk clerk is a former Army sniper. Only Cynthia Erivo’s singer-for-hire appears to be playing it straight, though that hardly keeps her out of trouble.

In a decidedly non-linear narrative, we glimpse each character’s backstory, enough to deepen the mystery and drag the viewer inexorably towards a violent climax. When the credits finally roll, a few questions might remain unanswered or at least some details left unclear, but that’s okay. Written and produced by director Drew Goddard, the film’s a visual treat, drenched in almost surreal hues, erupting in sudden bursts of violence, with every participant turning in terrific performances.

El ROyale Cast

Cynthia Erivo and young Cailee Spaeny are both new to me, but I’ll be watching for more from them, that’s for sure. Just as I’ll be watching for Dakota Johnson to further demonstrate how well she can do bad-ass and handle a gun.  If there’s a lethal assassin, cat burglar or (dare I hope) a gumshoe role in her future, I’m in.

Dakota Johnson

If you missed Bad Times At The El Royale, and enjoy a quirky neo-noir thriller, and like Tarantino, Robert Rodriguez’s or even David Lynch’s work, then give this film a try. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed. I sure wasn’t.

El ROyale 3

 

One Night Stands

Manhunt Dec 1958

Mired in relentlessly humid nineties for days, I headed out for what was supposed to be a quick Saturday AM trip to run errands, anxious to be home before morning warmed into another tropical afternoon. ‘Quick’ turned into three hours, with impatient weekend warriors fighting over parking spaces at each stop, my last a nightmarish trek through a crowded big box store. But a regional chain used bookstore beckoned from across the parking lot afterwards, like a well earned treat for getting those chores done. The last thing I need is more books piling up on my end table right now, but I walked out with a few treasures anyway.

One Night Stands

I know I had Lawrence Block’s One Night Stands And Lost Weekends, a 2008 Harper trade pb collecting some of the Grand Master’s short crime fiction and suspense novelettes from 1958 to 1966, with dates and credits for each in the back. Perhaps my original copy was reluctantly sold to a used bookstore to make room (bookshelf space is generous but not limitless here). Or I lent it to someone and forgot to get it back. But this nifty book is back on shelf now where it belongs, in a surprisingly clean, crisp copy I’m nearly done with already.

When I brought it and another book to the register, the cashier was nice enough to ask if I’d seen the Lawrence Block hardcover short fiction omnibus there as well. I hadn’t, so he dragged me over (it was out of order on shelf, as it turned out), so I also left with a like-new 2002 first edition hardcover of Enough Rope (previously published in the UK as The Collected Mysteries Stories), a nearly 900-page door-stopper of a collection with more than 80 Lawrence Block short stories. If there’s a duplicate between the two books (I spotted one right away), who cares? My only complaint: Eighty-plus gems, and the publisher couldn’t spring for an appendix or permissions section at the back to provide original publication dates at least, if not publication titles too? Well, no whining when you snag a treasure for eight bucks.

enough rope

Enough Rope is on my nightstand, that book spanning more years of Block’s career and including a bounty of detective/crime fiction short stories, with nine Matthew Scudder pieces, so it’d be worth buying for those alone. One Night Stands And Lost Weekends is in my car so I can knock off a shortie before and after work or chilling in a parking lot before a meeting during the week.

Three ‘lost’ Ed London – Private Eye novelettes conclude that book. I read the last one, “Twin Call Girls” and still need to finish “The Naked And The Deadly” and “Stag Party Girl”. Block’s three page 2001 introduction to his long-lost Ed London stories is as interesting as the stories themselves…no kidding. So, with only a few stories left to read, I’ve spent some quality time with a lot of delightfully unsavory people, visited dreary small towns, knocked back shots and draft shorties in their dismal cocktail lounges, then bedded down in their dingy hotel rooms, achingly alone or rolling ‘round a worn out mattress with any of a long string of curvy blondes squeezed into snug sweaters and tight skirts, on the make or ripe for a glib stranger’s line. In “Man With A Passion” from Sure-Fire in 1958, freelance photographer (and scheming blackmailer) Jacob Falch breezes into a jerkwater town with ten grand in his suitcase, recently paid by the mayor of the last jerkwater town to conceal some skillfully composited photographs of the mayor’s wife in very compromising positions. “The room was drab and colorless,” we’re told. “There was a bed, a straight-backed chair that looked as though it would buckle if he sat on it, and a dull brown dresser studded with cigarette burns. In short, Falch reflected, it was a crummy room in a cheap hotel. But it would do for the time being.” Cheery, huh?

You have to keep the time, the publications and their readership in mind, just like you do when reading pre-WWII crime and spicy pulp stories. The women are reduced to hair color, the shape of their figures and the cut of their clothes, all of them cunning femmes fatales when they’re not nameless trophies to be ‘had’ (with no one quibbling about the ethics of how that comes about). Assault masquerades as seduction in these overwhelmingly grim stories of adulterers, hit men and swindlers. Culled mostly from 1958 – 1961 issues of Manhunt, Guilty and Trapped magazines, some feel hastily written (and they often were, per the author’s own introduction), are glaringly dated, simple and sometimes shallow…

And utterly sublime.

See, the thing about Lawrence Block short stories is that, for me, they function on three levels.

First, and naturally enough, they’re just plain entertaining, downright fun to read (in a peculiarly grim sort of way) and rarely disappoint.

Second (and this applies particularly to the oldies), they carry me back to a bygone era I can only imagine (and probably romanticize more than I should) when talented, hard-working (and lucky) writers willing to pound the keys diligently enough could, theoretically, actually make a living at this writing game. Just like his writing how-to books, Block’s usually good for some conversational background about those early days when he started out, which both books’ introductions covered and which I love to read. Styles and tastes have evolved considerably since the 50’s-60’s waning pulp days and the PBO era. Some of the outlandish premises and gotcha endings might no longer fly with editors or readers. And just like most 1930’s – 1960’s crime pulps, spicy’s and ‘adventure’ magazines, the stories are brimming with squirm-worthy situations and borderline offensive dialog. And just like those mid-twentieth century pulps, I simply can’t help but enjoy the storytelling and straightforward writing.

Third and finally, I often feel like I’m cheating a bit when I read Lawrence Block, and suppose many writers would. Why? Because in addition to reading simply for enjoyment, I’m also getting a value-added (if unintended) tutorial on how to do it and how to do it right. Plot, action, setting and characters are all managed with such an economy of words. I plow through one story and immediately want to revisit the last pages I wrote in my own projects to prune, edit and tweak. Knowing that many of these stories were knocked out in a single evening is maddening to someone less skilled.

You’ll excuse me now. I’m setting the way-back machine to 1959, heading to a hot-sheet hotel on Chicago’s SW side so I can add some cigarette burns to one of their dreary room’s dresser tops. The ‘Stiletto Gumshoe’ herself probably left one of her Viceroys smoldering there once things heated up on the rickety old bed. Like I said, when I read some vintage Lawrence Block, I want to revisit my own stuff immediately. Cigarette burns. Yeah, that’s what I need…

Magazine images include: Guilty March 1958, July 1958 and September 1958; Manhunt December 1956; Trapped June 1958, October 1958 and April 1959.

Secret Agent Chic

Sasha Luss 1

Guy Aroch’s behind the camera, Vadim Galaganov handles styling duties and Sasha Luss is the very lethal looking secret agent in this July 2019 photo editorial for Elle Russia magazine. A clandestine meeting and planned briefcase exchange apparently goes bad, but I suspect that Sasha-the-spy (and her scary looking automatic) resolved things in the end.

Sasha Luss 2Sasha Luss 3Sasha Luss 4Sasha Luss 5Sasha Luss 6

The Howdunit Series

scene of the crime

I suppose Writer’s Digest Books “Howdunit Series” ought to be mandatory reading for every mystery/crime fiction writer, but the fact is, they’re quite entertaining for crime fiction fans as well. And very informative, if you like to be well-versed in grisly trivia.

I only have two: Keith D. Wilson’s Cause Of Death – A Writer’s Guide To Death, Murder & Forensic Medicine, and just added Anne Wingate’s Scene Of The Crime – A Writer’s Guide To Crime-Scene Investigations this past weekend. That the books are nearing 30 years-old doesn’t bother me, since my current projects are set in 1959. Things probably weren’t even up to 1990’s standards at that time anyway.

Private Eyes

What’s your pleasure? Poisons? Firearms? I really need to locate a clean copy of Private Eyes – A Writer’s Guide To Private Investigators by Hal Blythe, Charlie Sweet and John Landreth, though I’m sure things were quite different for P.I.’s sixty years ago when my ‘Stiletto Gumshoe’ hung up her shingle. The fact that I don’t see these books on shelf in used bookstores very often tells me that once bought, they’re kept. Sure, everything you ever wanted to know is online. But it’s nice to have details and info handy from reliable sources, not just a Wikipedia entry.

3 Books4 books

The Cutie.

The Cutie 2

Ken Laager’s deceptively simple (but simply stunning) cover art for the Hard Case Crime 2011 edition of Donald Westlake’s The Cutie (originally tiled The Mercenaries, from 1991).

The CutieThe Mercenaries

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