Saturday, February 17, 2018

Eighty-five Years of Doc Savage

Scott D. Parker

Eighty-five years ago today, Doc Savage landed on magazine shelves for the first time and, one might argue, helped change popular culture all the way up to the present day.

The brainchild of Street and Smith publisher, Henry Ralston and editor John Nanovic, Doc Savage was the brighter answer to the magazine’s other runaway bestseller, The Shadow. But where the Knight of Darkness fought crime at night and in the, um, shadows, The Man of Bronze was a different type of hero. He strove “every moment of my life to make myself better and better, to the best of my ability, that all may profit by it. Let me think of the right and lend all my assistance to those who need it, with no regard for anything but justice. Let me take what comes with a smile, without loss of courage. Let me be considerate of my country, of my fellow citizens and my associates in everything I say and do. Let me do right to all, and wrong no man.” He was a paragon of virtue, the kind of person kids could look up to and revere.

Clark Savage, Jr. appeared in 181 adventures from 1933 to 1949, mostly written by a single author, Lester Dent. In nearly all of them, he was accompanied by his five stalwart brothers in arms: Monk Mayfair, Ham Brooks, John Renwick, Long Tom Roberts, and William Littlejohn. Each man of the Fabulous Five was an expert in his chosen discipline, but Doc bested each. Doc had trained his mind and body since birth to be a superman. He even had a Fortress of Solitude where he would retire from time to time to study. Invariably he would emerge from his seclusion with some new invention, knowledge, or something else to benefit humankind. His headquarters on the 86th Floor of the unnamed building in New York (but we all knew was the Empire State Building) was a palace of gadgets, technology, and books where Doc and his comrades planned their adventures. And his villains were trying to take over the world long before Lex Luther or Blofeld.

If you’ve read this far, I think you will recognize some names and terms. The obvious descendant is Superman himself. Extrapolate, if you will, what Superman wrought: Batman, DC Comics, other superheroes, Marvel Comics, novels, toys, merchandise, movie serials, major motion pictures with superheroes, and many other things that shape large chunks of popular culture. In fact, the biggest superhero movie to date, The Avengers: Infinity War, can trace its roots all the way back to a pulp magazine character that debuted eight-five years ago today.

I am woefully deficient in my Doc Savage reading, but then just imagine reading one novel a month at the pace Lester Dent and a handful of other co-writers drafted the books. You would finish in 2034! But these stories are fantastic to dip into from time to time for the breathless sense of adventure and wonder.

Generations of readers grew up on the original pulp magazines while other generations were raised on the Bantam reprints of the 1960s and 1970s, with Frank Bama's depiction of Doc with a widow's peak and a tattered shirt.

Nostalgia Ventures reprinted the entire run, adding historical commentary. And Will Murray has been using abandoned outlines from Dent’s personal papers to write new adventures, including one in which Doc teams up with The Shadow, bringing the entire saga full circle.

Now, in this 85th year of Doc Savage, I plan to read a few more adventures, including the black-and-white comics from the mid 70s as published by Marvel Comics. I'll be reviewing these yarns as I get to them, beginning with The Polar Treasure next week. 

What are your favorite Doc Savage stories? How about a Top 10 list?

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

We Don't Need Another Hero

Sing it, Tina!

I am sick and tired of good criminals. Not everyone who steals is a violent psychopath, but it seems the current trend of "likable characters" means crooks who love the cops and America and help old ladies across the street. True, the contract killers I knew were very polite, if quiet individuals. Little Sammy was a gentleman in the pharmacy where I worked, where he bought smokes for himself and medicine for his family. I had the honor of mailing care packages to him in Rahway prison from his family. He never sent a thank-you card, but he also never growled a snappy one-liner and gripped my collar when I didn't grab him his Pall Malls fast enough.

He didn't smoke Pall Malls, or Luckies for that matter. They weren't Marlboros, either. It's been twenty years. I know exactly where on the rack they would be, but I can't see the logo. They were white, so not Benson & Hedges... I miss working at that drug store. I wrote my first stories there. The only one in "print" is "We're All Guys Here," which was almost entirely rewritten from when it first appeared in Blue Murder in 2001. I rewrote it for [PANK] Magazine in 2011. The one "drug store story" I wrote was called "Zero Tolerance," and I recently found it on my hard drive. It won't be in print anytime soon! But it was a good learning exercise. 

Anyway, why was I talking about a mobster I knew? Because he wouldn't be on the side of the cops. Unlike the "criminal" in a recent movie I was watching, Brawl in Cell Block 99. I didn't give the movie much of a chance after 30 minutes in, when Vince Vaughn, a supposed recovering addict who works for drug dealer (I wonder what his sponsor says?) but "won't work with people who uses." Right there this puts the novel in the realm of fantasy. He might as well have a third eye on the back of his head instead of the iron cross tattoo. You're not going to find much work in that business. He also likes punching his new associates, taking their weapons from them, and expecting them to not kill him when his back is turned, because he's a grade-A asshole. What sank the boat for me was when the police show up while they are making a drug deal, and the Latino dealers pull machine guns out of nowhere and start killing them, and he ... shoots them and saves the cops.

If you want to write about criminals, make them criminals. If he doesn't want to kill police, he can run. He can hide. But shooting his business partners out of some sense of morality, when he sells meth, broke any suspension of disbelief I had. The writer did not trust us to like this character, so he had to put him in prison for being a good guy. A cop actually says to him, at an interrogation, that "maybe he could be on the other side of the table" because of his morals.

Said no cop ever. 

I train in martial arts with police. My father was (briefly) a police officer, and even the bad cops call the criminals scumbags. They do not socialize with them. They do not say, "hey, you'd be a good guy if you weren't distributing tons of methamphetamine in my town. Let's go get a steak." For a realistic look, read Don Winslow's The Force, which captures the cognitive dissonance of the corrupt cop quite well. I wasn't a fan of the ending, but it's a damn good read and explains how good cops can be corrupted by our fruitless drug war and the billions of dollars it sends to organized crime and the justice system.

These aren't the Yankees and the Mets, who might brawl on the field but grab brews together. They might grow up on the same street, but if you're an outlaw, you don't feel bad for the police when they try to put you in prison and are outgunned. You get the hell out of there. One of the best portrayals of both sides I've read, other than Winslow, is Eugene Izzi's Invasions. Long out of print, but it captured it perfectly. There's a scene where an undercover embedded in a corrupt cop squad has to beat up a pro burglar who won't talk. He takes a baton and knocks his teeth out. He doesn't feel bad about it, not really. If he was soft, they would know, and kill him. So he does it, and he gives the guy respect later. The burglar, in a prison riot, helps a guard who was being brutalized. But he doesn't do it by beating up or killing any inmates. That would get him killed. He removes the nightstick from the officer (you can wince and use your imagination) and pushes him into an empty cell. That was believable. He doesn't risk his life. He doesn't try to stop the riot. He has a shred of decency and quietly acts. 

I've read a number of books recently where contract killers and so-called street thugs have hearts of gold for people they shouldn't give two damns about, and it doesn't ring true. One that did ring true was Jordan Harper's excellent She Rides Shotgun, about a crook who kills a white supremacist gang leader's brother and has to save his daughter from a hit on his whole family. That book deals very well with people who look out for number one. If you want people who make sacrifices for strangers, write about police and firemen. Or reformed criminals. People in the life rarely stick their necks out for people, and they certainly don't do it for the people who want to kill them or lock them up for life.

For indie crime films, let me recommend I Don't Feel at Home in This World Anymore, which starts with a burglary and spirals out of control. It's funny and wonderful. Blue Ruin and Green Room are both excellent and show bad people behaving as bad people do, with citizens caught in between. I also liked Small Crimes based on Dave Zeltsermann's novel. These stories all give us characters that we like even when they are criminals, without resorting to have them save puppies.

And I'll say this- Jay Desmarteaux isn't a born outlaw. He was raised by them, mentored by one, but he knows he is not one. He can move in both worlds, the citizen and the outlaw, but he is an outsider in both. There's a scene in Bad Boy Boogie that shows who Jay is, and who the passenger in his car is, when they are racing and send another car into a lake. An outlaw wouldn't do what Jay did. He'd be a liability on a job. Parker wouldn't work with him. Hell, his own mentor Okie wouldn't work with him. 

But he doesn't call himself a contract killer, and then weigh the target's heart like Anubis to see if he deserves to die. Or work for a drug dealer, but have a problem with people who use the product. ("Don't get high on your own supply" is the rule, not "don't get high at all"). So I hope that the next 2 hours of Riot in Cell Block 99 weren't incredible, because I couldn't get there. I'm also not a big fan of the John Wick movies, though I did like Crank and Shoot Em Up because they embraced their ridiculousness. Twenty guys running into a house to be shot like video game thugs doesn't excite me. (At least in John Wick 2 they just blew up his house, which was smarter). We have enough comic book heroes out there. I'd really like to see comic book criminals from Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips's series Criminal on the screen. Those crooks were real as can be.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Being Part of a Writing Community

Scott's Note: Sam Wiebe has a piece here today, about a topic quite relevant to many.  Sam's third novel, Cut You Down, has just come out, and it's more evidence that from his base in Vancouver, he is writing topnotch private eye novels. Cut You Down is the second book that features his private investigator Dave Wakeland.

And so...Sam?

Being Part of a Writing Community

by Sam Wiebe

           A writing community is almost an oxymoron. Writing is a solitary endeavor, as is reading, and most us have few interactions with the authors of the books we enjoy. Writers aren’t exactly social butterflies; the job tends to attract introverts and the socially anxious. And yet the search for a community of peers and mentors is important, and something I think about quite a bit.
            I didn’t go to creative writing school, but I think one of the benefits of doing so is that inborn sense of community. You surround yourself with people striving for a common goal, some of them better or worse than you. That can be inspiring.
            But for those of us without that resource, who either didn’t have the money and time to pursue an MFA, or who write the kinds of genres those programs typically look down on, where do we turn to find community?
            The answers “online” and “locally” come to mind. Odds are there are writers who live near you, who write roughly the same kind of things you do. There are also online communities that are welcoming and which offer tremendous resources for writing and publishing—LitHub and Aerogramme Writers Studio come to mind (to say nothing of Do Some Damage).
            It wasn’t until Last of the Independents came out that I truly felt part of a writing community, and began realizing the benefit of having people to talk to about the craft and business of writing. E.R. Brown, Robin Spano and Dietrich Kalteis were people who really helped me out in terms of making those connections and offering advice.

            Four years later, I’m on my third novel, Cut You Down, which comes out today. The launch party was a few days ago, and well-attended. I now feel embedded in the Vancouver crime writing community, happy to be part, and hopeful that it will grow and diversify.
            The question I think about now isn’t how to find people, but how to vet and interact with them in a beneficial way. There are writers with little in the way of publication experience, who nevertheless weigh in on writing topics with the authority of a Bronte sister. (Seriously, tweet the tired-as-shit question “pantser or plotter?” and just watch as people come out of the woodwork telling you why what works for them will work for you.) I don’t want to be one of them.
            The advice I normally seek out is rarely about craft—those are questions I feel comfortable working out alone. But the business of writing baffles me, and can be demoralizing. I love talking shop with people smarter than myself, who know the business and have an eye for spotting ways to be more professional.
            That word ‘professional’ has become important to me, as a standard to live up to.
            What fundamentally complicates this search for community is that reading and writing take a hell of a lot of time. If the entry fee of being friends with a fellow writer is to read everything they write, that limits the amount of people you can befriend.
            If I’m doing research, or on a classics kick, or trying to broaden my horizons, your book might not fall into that. That is not a judgement on the book’s quality. It’s about what I need from my reading right now.
            That doesn’t mean a writing community can’t be supportive. What it means is that there’s a line to walk, being encouraging and positive without being disingenuous.
            What I can offer a writing community, and what I expect from it, is respect. On a personal level, but also in the shared recognition that the work we do is difficult but worthwhile. By that perspective, anyone at any level of writing experience, from someone starting out, to a published author looking to stay motivated, is welcome.

            Vancouver has a great local crime writing community. Dietrich Kalteis, Linda Richards, Owen Laukkanen, Sheena Kamal, E.R. Brown, Robin Spano, and Cathy Ace have all worked hard to make me feel a part of that. Those people have my back, and vice versa.
            Those are the most recognized names, because they all have books published. But there are dozens of other members of our writing community. In the years we’ve been running the Noir at the Bar reading series, or the Cuffed Festival, that community has grown. People who volunteer, or who show up to readings, who pitch in on social media or offer encouragement. Irene Lau and Tricia Barker, to name only two, are tireless advocates for Vancouver crime writers.
            Aspiring writers make up a large part of the community. It’s been gratifying to see people like Merrillee Robson and A.J. Devlin go on to publish their own novels. No doubt they’ll be influencing others to come.
            Conferences like Bouchercon, Left Coast Crime, and Thrillerfest are all great places to expand your writing community. There’s something great about finally meeting a writer you’ve interacted with on social media. Those conferences can be expensive, though. A cheaper alternative is to invite out of town writers to take part in a reading series like Noir at the Bar. In Seattle, Michael Pool and Will Vilharo have done Noir at the Bars featuring writers from California, Oregon or British Columbia. Likewise, we’ve had American authors take part in the Vancouver events.
          What a community boils down to is professionalism and respect.  Feeling that you don't quite belong can make you shy or defensive, but those feelings are in fact your ticket of admission.  If you're in this for the long haul, you'll need to rely on an awful lot of other people for support, advice, and expertise.  If there isn't a community around you, build one.  It pays off.  I promise.

Sam Wiebe is the author of the critically acclaimed series of novels featuring Vancouver PI Dave Wakeland. His latest novel, Cut You Down, comes out today. Visit and @sam_wiebe  on twitter.

You can find Cut You Down on Amazon right here.

Monday, February 12, 2018

The Spying Moon

Excited to share that last year I signed a contract with Down & Out Books for publication of my novel, THE SPYING MOON. Constable Kendall Moreau had hoped to be assigned to the region where her mother disappeared when Moreau was just a child.

Instead, when an officer is assaulted and hospitalized Moreau finds herself assigned to a task force in a town on the Canada-U.S. border, miles from where she'd hoped to be.

Her co-workers either exclude her or harass her and there is reason to suspect corruption within her own police department. When the death of a teenage suggests a connection to the local drug trade Moreau is forced to decide who she can trust if she's going to find out the truth about the boy's death, who put her colleague in the hospital and the real reason she was transferred to Maple River.

The book is scheduled for release this September.

This is NOT the cover, but we are at that stage where I've been asked for my cover suggestions. This manuscript marked a turning point for me in many ways. I gave myself some specific goals and it feels timely in the wake of the #MeToo movement because it addresses reasons people are judged or excluded and presumptions people make based on race and gender.

It's exciting to think that Moreau's story will be in store shelves later this year.