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Thursday, June 13, 2019

FISTICUFFS, PALOOKAS, AND NOIR


 FISTICUFFS, PALOOKAS, AND NOIR
Boxing and noir go together as smoothly as a one-two combination punch. The inherent qualities of both noir and boxing, desperation, bad choices, violence, tension, humanity stripped bare, combine for a marriage made in Hell. 

We’re not talking the Rockys of the boxing world here. We’re not talking the life affirming, if you punch hard enough, sooner or later you’re gonna be a contender, kind of boxing stories. We’re talking about the down and dirty, punch drunk, cauliflower-eared, in bed with the mob, no hope fighters who populate such novels as Fat City (Leonard Gardner), Ringside Jezebel (Kate Nickerson), The Leather Pushers (H. C. Witwer), The Bruiser (Jim Tully), or Iron Man (W. R. Burnett). 

There’s always the classic femme fatale involved in these tales–usually a high class socialite who gets her slumming hooks into the blue collar fighter and plays him for a sap. She’s usually responsible for pitting the palooka against the mob–you know, the bent-nosed guys looking to take over the fight racket by making the hero take a dive in the 4th round. 

The low end of boxing has long fascinated writers. The late Budd Schulberg, author of the novel and screenplay On the Waterfront (the classic shoulda-woulda-coulda been a contender tale), also wrote The Harder They Fall, which has lost none of its power since its first publication almost fifty years ago. 

Made into a 1956 noir film, The Harder They Fall starred Humphrey Bogart in his last role as a destitute sports writer involved with mobster Rod Steiger. Bogart puts a punch drunk boxer in harm’s way believing he can convince him to throw a fight, but when the boxer decides against the dive, Bogart finds himself complicit in the boxer’s avoidable death. 

Trying to convince the boxer, Toro, to throw the fight, Bogart’s dialogue brings not only the sport, but the fight fans into disrepute, “What do you care what a bunch of bloodthirsty, screaming people think of you? Did you ever get a look at their faces? They pay a few lousy bucks hoping to see a man get killed. To hell with them! Think of yourself. Get your money and get out of this rotten business.” 

Another example of film noir’s take on boxing would be 2008’s The Tender Hook. Set in 1930′s Sidney, Australia, the traditional mob boss’ girlfriend falls for a boxer and starts a steamy affair that ends in bloodshed. The film stars Hugo Weaving as McHeath (the seedy mobster/boxing promoter) and Rose Byrne as McHeath’s girlfriend (the requisite femme fatale) who falls for McHeath’s new boxer played by Matthew Le Nevez. The story is standard fare, but its stellar cast really brings it to life. 

The best of all boxing noir films, however, is 1949’s The Set-Up starring Robert Ryan as over-the-hill boxer Bill 'Stoker' Thompson, who insists he can still win. 

Despite the pleas of his sexy wife Julie to quit, Stoker agrees to a bout with mob-backed fighter Tiger Nelson. Stoker’s manager, Tiny, is so confident Stoker will lose, he takes money from Little Boy, the tough mobster behind Tiger, to guarantee Stoker will take a dive. The problem is, Tiny doesn’t tell Stoker about this arrangement.

Directed by Robert Wise, The Set-Up is brilliantly told in real time. The tension builds as Stoker stalks Tiger Nelson across the ring, determined to win, yet unaware of the tragic fate awaiting him if he does. 

At the start of the fourth round of the vicious match with the much younger and heavily-favored Tiger, Stoker learns about the fix, but refuses to give up. 
Director Wise makes the most of every sweat-flecked second of celluoid. The fight scenes are filled with close-ups of faces burning with fear, bloodlust, and desperation–turning the screws of this tension filled gem. 

With the films in mind, noir fans can fire up their DVD players, or dig deep into the catalogs of their favorite streaming service,  put up their dukes, and settle in for a night of fisticuffs, palookas and noir. . .But they best watch out for that bad left hook.

Thursday, May 16, 2019

W. GLENN DUNCAN AND RAFFERTY


W. GLENN DUNCAN
7/13/1940—5/7/2019

Recently, I received an email from Bill Duncan with the sad news his father, W. Glenn Duncan had passed away after a long struggle with health issues. W. Glenn Duncan was the creator of the iconic Rafferty series of hardboiled private eye novels.  The news was particularly poignant for me as I  conducted the last published interview with W. Glenn Duncan with the aid of his son, Bill. In the past couple of years, Bill has not only been able to get his father’s six Rafferty books back into print, but has also taken over the Rafferty mantel as he continues the character in books of his own. Bill has also become a friend.

Bill recently sent out an email to the many fans old and new of his father’s writing, stating: I'm so grateful to each and every one of you for the joy you brought to Dad in the last couple of years, as he got to know the true breadth of support for Rafferty and all the other characters he created. I know I've said it before, but I'll never forget that you did that for him. Thank you from the bottom of my heart.

In a wonderful tribute to his father, Bill also wrote the following scene featuring Rafferty and his cohorts as they say their own goodbye to their creator...Personally, it gave me chills...

Sunset.

A secluded location on the shores of Lake Texoma, Texas.

The sun wavered on the horizon across the water. Hung there like it knew its job was to finish setting, but it wanted to give our motley group just a little more light, more warmth, more time before the day ended and the dark times came.

We got the flames going pretty good and pushed the rowboat out. The breeze slapped little wavelets against the wooden topsides for a few seconds, then it grabbed hold of the small boat and its cargo and dragged them quickly away from shore.

Cowboy was the first to break the silence, holding his Stetson in his large hands and running a knobby thumb along the brim. “Well, goddamn,” he said. “Didn’t never expect it would come to this.” He kicked at a rock with his boot. “Goddamn,” he said again.

“Uh huh,” I replied.

Mimi stood tall, all four feet and a bit of her, and blinked back tears. I’d never seen Mimi cry before. “He’s really gone, isn’t he?” she said.

“Fraid so, Mimi,” I said. “I wish like hell he wasn’t but …”

She nodded, ran a finger under both eyes, and hugged herself. Cowboy draped an arm around her shoulders.

Ed Durkee’s brown suit had wilted while we were getting the rowboat ready, and the coming chill of the evening wasn’t going to breathe life back into it. He dry-rubbed his face and sighed. “I can’t believe you talked me into this, Rafferty. A goddamned Viking funeral! If anyone comes down here, I’m gonna pretend like I don’t know what’s going on and I’ll bust you all.”

“You didn’t have to come,” I pointed out. “Relax, Ed. It’ll all be over soon,” I said. “He’ll either make it into Oklahoma or completely burn up. My money’s on burning up. Did you leave any lighter fluid in the can, Ricco?”

Ricco pulled the toothpick from the corner of his mouth, shook his head twice, and grinned.

The flames were really going now, they must have been fifteen, maybe twenty feet high, as the little boat turned in circles, caught in an unseen eddy.

Hilda wrapped an arm around my waist.

“I’m so sorry, Rafferty,” she said in a low voice. “Are you okay?”

Shook my head.

“We’ve known each other for so long, it felt like he’d just always be there. I knew that wouldn’t be the case but, dammit, I wanted it to be.” I looked around the circle of faces, knew that they expected me to say something in the moment.

I toasted the flaming boat with my beer.

“Glenn Duncan. He was the best of all of us. A doer, a man who made things happen. In fact I’m reminded of a quote by Heinlein. It goes something like ‘A man should be able to change...‘“

At that moment something important in the structure of the boat must have burned through because there was an enormous hiss, a cloud of steam, and then nothing.

I looked at the lake surface, ripples fanning out in all directions from where the rowboat and Glenn had slipped beneath the water.

I like to think that those ripples will always be there. They may be small, they may be far away, and they may even be too hard to see with the naked eye, but they will be there.

Always.

I turned from the lake and looked at my friends.

“Hell with it. You guys ready to kick ass and take names?”

Mimi nodded, reached into her oversize purse, and checked her Uzi.

Cowboy slid his hunting knife into the scabbard at the small of his back and said, “Let’s git amongst ‘em.”

Ed shook his head and pretended like he was somewhere else.

Ricco just grinned.

Hilda leaned into me, nestled her head into my chest, and rubbed her hand on my back.

“It’s what he would want,” she whispered.

I nodded.

Damn straight.

In the two posts below you will find the two part interview I conducted with W. Glenn Duncan in 2017...


RAFFERTY DOWN UNDER—PART 1


RAFFERTY DOWN UNDER
• PART 1 •

Somewhere, jockeying for position in my top five favorite tough guy private eyes, you will find the six book Rafferty series by Shamus Award winning author W. Glenn Duncan. Like author John Whitlatch, who I previously posted about, W. Glenn Duncan has been an enigma to his fans for many years. A former journalist and pilot, Duncan lived in Iowa, Ohio, Florida, Texas, and California, before disappearing into the proverbial wilds of Australia with his wife and three children.

Since the 1990 publication of the last Rafferty book, Fatal Sisters, a hardcore cult of mystery fans has grown around the paperback original Rafferty series. Whenever knowledgeable hardboiled gurus talk about favorite, overlooked, or forgotten private eye series, Rafferty is always mentioned at the highest levels.

The Rafferty series has been compared to both Robert B. Parker’s Spenser novels,  which began a few years prior to the first Rafferty book, but had not yet become the bestselling phenomenon it is today. Robert Crais’ Elvis Cole premiered the same year as Rafferty’s Rules and also found itself being compared to the Spenser formula. Other series, including Harlan Coben’s Myron Bolitar books, followed a similar pattern.

The Rafferty series, however, broke away from the pack to establish its own original niche in the pantheon of great private eyes. The series became known not only for the spot on philosophy of the frequent quoting of Rafferty’s rules, but also for the great interplay between the tougher than tough Rafferty and his even tougher sidekick, Cowboy. Tougher than both of them, though, is Cowboy’s wife—the delightfully height challenged, Mimi. Each of the Rafferty books had an added depth of social conscious, dealing with problems that are still pertinent today. 

Attempts have been made to trace Duncan for interviews or simply to find out more information about the author and his series—all eventually running into a dead end down under. Casual and in-depth Internet searches fail to provide any extensive or definitive information. Most recently, Lee Goldberg’s Brash Books tried to locate Duncan to obtain the reprint rights to the Rafferty series. Those efforts also ran aground on the coast of Austrailia and the search eventually abandoned.

When I wrote my original blog post on the enigmatic John Whitlatch in 2009, it prompted an unexpected response from an individual who had worked with Whitlatch in the insurance industry. When I reached out to the respondent, he provided me with a wealth of information on Whitlatch, which was previously unknown to genre mavens. I wrote and posted an article to document the details, causing a minor Internet run on used copies of Whitlatch’s novels—likely inflating prices by a few bucks for those late to the party. 

Recently, I experienced a similar out of the blue response to a blog post I’d written regarding my admiration for the Rafferty series. Bill Duncan, son of W. Glenn Duncan contacted me to ask if he could quote my blog post as he was preparing to relaunch his father’s Rafferty novels in e-book format. The relaunch of the Rafferty series was great news, but I was also excited when Bill told me he was also taking over the reins of the Rafferty series, writing a new adventure—False Gods—which is great news for new readers and long term fans.

Bill graciously agreed to pass some specific questions on to his father related to the Rafferty series, and to also answer some questions himself about the upcoming Rafferty reissues and the soon to be released new Rafferty novel...
******
INTERVIEW WITH W. GLEN DUNCAN

What can you tell us about your background, your reading interests, and how you began writing?

I was an avid reader growing up and read anything I could get my hands on. Studied journalism briefly in college before serving in the US Navy. After getting out, I went back to journalism and worked as a radio reporter in Dallas in the first half of the sixties. The whole job was being out and about, talking to and observing people. Dallas was a busy town. There was always something going on. And I had a car and could go anywhere I wanted to get a story. I was like a kid with a doughnut.

In 1964, I was inside the Neiman-Marcus building as it burned in the famous five-alarm fire, and I was the only reporter there. Everyone else was too chickenshit to come inside. Stanley Marcus, the store’s namesake was there too, and every five minutes he’d jump on the mic to say, “We’ll be open tomorrow morning at 8am for business.”

I learned from that situation that the best thing to do was to get to someone who’s close to the story, and let them tell you the story. There’s an enormous vat of interesting stories in everyday interactions if you’re aware. If your ears are good enough, your pen can be good enough too.

What type of books do you enjoy reading and was there any book in particular that inspired you to begin writing?

No one book in particular inspired me, but I’ve always liked mysteries, adventure and aviation-related stories. Writers I’ve enjoyed reading are Wilbur Smith, John D. Macdonald, Stephen King and Robert B Parker.

Did you do any other writing before the Rafferty series or did you jump right into writing Rafferty’s Rules?

Rafferty was the third full-length novel I’d written. The previous two weren’t published. I did have a handful of short stories published...

It Could Happen to Anybody
Mike Shayne 
Mystery Magazine 
Sept 1983
Wally the Dumb
Alfred Hitchcock’s 
Mystery Magazine
April 1984
The Gray Mercedes
Mike Shayne 
Mystery Magazine 
July 1984
Alone at Sea
Alfred Hitchcock’s
Mystery Magazine 
Sept 1984

Did you use an agent to sell the Rafferty series or did you go directly over the transom to the publisher?

Used an agent. Weirdly, though, it was an agent I hadn’t queried. I received a note from an intern, or assistant, who’d pulled Rafferty out of the slush pile at the agency where she worked and read it in her own time. She got in touch and told me the manuscript wouldn’t go anywhere at her agency, but she enjoyed it. However, she also thought it was the type of thing another agent she knew was looking for, and suggested I contact him.

Did you plan for Rafferty to become a series character or did you write Rafferty’s Rules as a standalone and the publisher asked for more?

Rafferty was written originally as a standalone, but it was a helluva lot of fun seeing where the characters took me in the subsequent books.

The Rafferty books were some of the last titles to be published under Fawcett’s iconic Gold Medal imprint. Were you aware of the storied Gold Medal history when you were being published by them?

Not really.

Did Gold Medal contract for the full series or go from book to book?

They took Rafferty’s Rules first, then did a two-book deal for Last Seen Alive and Poor Dead Cricket, then a three-book deal for Wrong Place, Wrong Time, Cannon’s Mouth, and Fatal Sisters.

Did the Gold Medal choose not to continue the series after Fatal Sisters (Rafferty #6) or did you choose not to continue because of other demands on your time?

When I finished writing Fatal Sisters, I had written six books in four years and I was ready for a break. Fawcett had also refused any new Rafferty stories due to declining sales, so I decided to take some well-earned down time.

My youngest daughter had moved out of the house, Val and I were enjoying being kid-free again, and my passion for sailing had grown to the point where I was refitting sailing boats and we were taking months-long cruises up and down the East Coast of Australia. By the time I was ready to get stuck back into Rafferty, the movie had been released. I was so disappointed with what they’d done, I decided to stop there and then. I always believed when it stops being fun, it’s time to stop. And it was.

Were you surprised to win the Shamus Award for Rafferty’s Rules?

Yes, very. And flattered. 

Did you socialize with other writers’ groups such as Mystery Writers of America or Private Eye Writers of America?

No. This was the mid to late eighties, and Australia might has well have been on another planet, as far as communication was concerned. All correspondence between the agent and me was still by typewritten letter!

How did Rafferty’s Rules come to be sold as the basis for the Lorenzo Lamas action film, Snake Eater III—His Law?

The film production company expressed interest in securing a film option to Rafferty’s Rules in the late eighties. ’88, ’89, somewhere around there. I don’t remember if they approached my agent or if it was the other way around. It took forever to reach an agreement on the contract. With 20/20 hindsight, maybe I should have known it would turn out the way it did.

The production company originally said that they wouldn’t use Rafferty’s Rules as the basis for a Snake Eater film, but in ’91 they exercised their option and, unfortunately, we all know what happened afterward.

Did you have any other involvement in making the movie?

Hell, no. Does it look like it? I sincerely hope not. Truth be told, although I’ve always been a proponent of the “Take the money and run” approach for Hollywood enquiries, the complete disaster the movie became is a solid argument for getting involved. 

A lack of information from my agent on exactly how the story would be used also factored into my hands-off approach. If I’d known how much they were going to screw it up, I would have fought for Rafferty.

What prompted you to move to Australia and was the move before, after, or in the middle of writing the Rafferty books?

We moved to Australia in 1975 after watching the debacle that the US government had become with Nixon and the Watergate affair. We wanted to give the kids a better place to grow up and Australia reminded us a lot of the way the US used to be.

Were you ever aware genre fans and publishers were trying to track you down?

Honestly had no idea until Bill told me what he’d found in speaking to you and a few of the other contacts he’d made. We’d been living aboard a boat for 15 years too, mostly away from any sort of public life and far, far away from the internet. The whole idea of social media (what the hell is that, anyway?) and having an online “presence” bores me to tears.

Have you continued to write while down under?

After Rafferty finished, I wrote a few articles for boating magazines.

Have you read any of the Australian crime writers?

I enjoy both Peter Corris and Jon Cleary.

How do you feel about Rafferty making a comeback under the guidance of your son, Bill?

I think it’s great that Bill is repubbing my books, and it’s hard to believe there are still people out there who want to read those old things, but the most exciting part is to know that Bill is writing his own instalment. Really looking forward to the release of False Gods.

Why does Rafferty remains a cult favorite among hardboiled fans?

Wow, I really don’t know. All I can say is that I had a helluva lot of fun writing each story and I guess that probably comes through in the reading. It surprises me that they seem to have stood the test of time, but I believe it’s all down to the relatability of the characters, which was the easy part. Once I got started, the characters and the situations they found themselves in would tell me what they wanted to do next. I just let them be themselves and didn’t force them anywhere.

Cowboy and Mimi were my favorites. Nobody had ever written a couple like that before and I thought it would be fun to see what happened with them. It was. And though mysteries and crime are easy to make plot-driven, I always wanted the characters to be the central focus. There’s no point in telling the reader what happens next when I can show them by making the characters do things that move the action along.

You’ve got to keep the reader interested, and I hope the stories did that. In Last Seen Alive, where Boat blows up (Ed: Spoiler alert) there was no reason to have Jim Belker and his daughter in the scene. But by including the realistic scenario of a father and daughter on a quiet fishing trip nearby, I could increase the drama and tension and get the reader more invested in what’s happening.
******
Thanks to W. Glenn Duncan for the great conversation. In Part 2 of Rafferty Down Under, it’s time to bring Bill Duncan under the interrogation lamps and tell us about the bright future planned for the Rafferty series.

TO VISIT THE
RAFFERTY P. I. WEBSITE
CLICK HERE

TO LEARN MORE ABOUT THE RAFFERTY SERIES
ON THE THRILLING DETECTIVE WEBSITE
THE RAFFERTY SERIES
Rafferty's Rules (1987)
Last Seen Alive (1987)
Poor Dead Cricket (1988)
Wrong Place, Wrong Time (1989)
Cannon's Mouth (1990)
Fatal Sisters (1990)
COMING SOON
False Gods (2018)
RAFFERTY AND THE MOVIES
In 1989, looking to capitalize on his martial arts skills, pretty boy Lorenzo Lamas tried to make the jump from a secondary character on the television prime time soap opera Falcon Crest, to big screen action movie star. Unfortunately, his choice for his first action role was the disasterous low budget B-movie, Snake Eater. The plot played out like an entry in a by-the-numbers men’s adventure paperback series. As Jack Soldier Kelly, Lorenzo Lamas is the leader of the Snake Eaters, an elite division of the Marines especially trained for search and destroy missions. When Soldier finds out a band of backwoods bad-guys have killed his parents and abducted his sister, he returns home to extract kick-ass revenge.

Somehow, Snake Eater spawned two sequels. Snake Eater II—The Drug Buster did a hit and run on the big screen in 1989, almost immediately after the release of the original. In 1992, Snake Eater III—His Law completed the trilogy. There is one remarkable thing about Snake Eater III. While the first two Snake Eater entries were original screenplays, Snake Eater III was based on W. Glen Duncan’s novel Rafferty’s Rules—the first in his Rafferty series.

From a glance at its synopsis, Snake Eater III—His Law would appear to follow at least the basic set-up of Rafferty’s Rules...Vietnam vet Jack Soldier Kelly is hired to find a biker gang called Hell's Fury and extract revenge on the outlaw bikers for the kidnapping, drugging, and rape of a young college co-ed. Even Rafferty’s partner in crime, the slightly psychotic Cowboy (portrayed by stunt coordinator Minor Mustain), gets name checked as an ex-biker turned private eye who teams up with Soldier.

Soldier even gets Rafferty’s love interest, Hildy Gardener (Canadian actress Tracey Cook). However, beyond a couple of well-choreographed martial arts scenes, the movie did the source material no favors.