A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Wally Conger on ‘The Hollywood Troubleshooter Saga’

A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Wally Conger on ‘The Hollywood Troubleshooter Saga’

“You’re the second guy I’ve met within hours who seems to think a gat in the hand means a world by the tail.” – Phillip Marlowe in Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep

(Gat — Prohibition Era term for a gun. Shortened version of Gatling Gun)

Wally Conger and I chat on FB about our common interests in books, movies, and TV/streaming shows. We’re even co-Admins on a FB group dedicated to hardboiled/noir, and another one about Solar Pons. He’s also a big fan of the extremely talented James Scott Bell, so I was really happy when Wally agreed to write an essay about that author’s pulp series starring Bill Armbrewster! Take it away, Wally:

Hollywood and hardboiled noir will be forever intertwined. And James Scott Bell, a winner of the International Thriller Writers Award, writing teacher, and creator of at least four entertaining thriller series of books that I can think of (including the delightful Kick-Ass Nun stories), has recently underscored that fact with his ebook Trouble Is My Beat: The Bill Armbrewster, Hollywood Troubleshooter Mystery Novelettes in Classic Pulp Style.

Admittedly, that’s a mouthful of a title, but it’s good marketing. It describes exactly what this gem is. The year is 1945. The war’s just ended, the boys are marching home, and Hollywood is grinding out movies faster than Rita Hayworth is plowing through husbands. Bill Armbrewster is the “troubleshooter” for National-Consolidated Pictures — in other words, he works to keep the studio’s image, and the images of its “people properties,” squeaky clean.

That might entail keeping young actresses out of the clutches of unscrupulous con men or helping an Errol Flynn type keep his nose clean and out of the drunk tank. In one yarn in this collection, Bill even helps Bette Davis fight off a potential blackmail plot.

There are six pulpish novelettes here — “Blonde Bombshell,” “Tough Guy,” “Nabbed,” “The Bat Lady,” “Dancing Feet” and “Blackmail” — and each one smoothly builds from the last, introducing series “regulars” (a very appealing girlfriend, for instance) and fleshing out Armbrewster’s character. And a fun character Bill Armbrewster is, particularly for hardboiled fans like me.

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Vintage Treasures: Tales from the Spaceport Bar edited by George H. Scithers and Darrell Schweitzer

Vintage Treasures: Tales from the Spaceport Bar edited by George H. Scithers and Darrell Schweitzer


Tales from the Spaceport Bar and Another Round at the Spaceport Bar
(Avon Books, 1987 and 1989). Covers by James Warhola and Doug Beekman

Science fiction has a rep for being serious stuff. Tales of dystopias, climate catastrophes and environmental collapse, dire warnings about worrying trends, that’s SF in a nutshell. Even dressed up in its best story-telling adventure garb, Star Wars or Mad Max-style, it’s still often perceived as all about desperate battles in apocalyptic settings.

Of course, science fiction is much broader and richer than that, and most of its best writers have amply demonstrated their love of whimsy and fun. One of SF’s best-loved sub-genres is the Club Tale/Bar Story, exemplified by Arthur C. Clarkes famous Tales From the White Hart, L. Sprague de Camp and Fletcher Pratt’s long-running Gavagan’s Bar stories, Lord Dunsany’s Jorkens tales, Isaac Asimov’s Black Widowers mysteries, Spider Robinson’s Callahan’s Bar, Larry Niven’s spacefaring tales of Draco Tavern, and many others.

In the late 80s Weird Tales editors George H. Scithers and Darrell Schweitzer assembled a collection of the best such stories, Tales from the Spaceport Bar. It made the Locus Award list of Year’s Best Anthologies (in 11th place), and was quickly followed by Another Round at the Spaceport Bar. Both books are a fine antidote to anyone who’s dabbled just a little too long on the dark side of science fiction.

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The Pandemic Was Really Quite Good to Me

The Pandemic Was Really Quite Good to Me


Tune in Tomorrow (Solaris, August 23, 2022), and the author

The pandemic was really quite good to me.

Don’t get into a snit – there are caveats: The horrible ongoing forever pandemic was terrible for everybody, including me. Millions had their lives wrecked, or died, and if the “quite good” experience I had could be swapped for a retcon in which “Covfefe” was as close as we ever got to saying “COVID,” I’d do it in a hot second.

Since that isn’t happening, let’s start again.

The pandemic was actually quite good for my debut novel, Tune in Tomorrow. See, back in 2020 I received an email from my agent saying that a publisher was interested in publishing the book, with a few alterations. Was I game?

As someone who struggled for decades to get a damn novel published, the answer was a quick, “Hell yes!”

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Carving Out Destiny: Stormbringer by Michael Moorcock

Carving Out Destiny: Stormbringer by Michael Moorcock

There came a time when the destiny of Men and Gods was hammered out upon the forge of Fate, when monstrous wars were brewed and mighty deeds were designed. And there rose up in this time, which was called the Age of the Young Kingdoms, heroes. Greatest of these heroes was a doom-driven adventurer who bore a crooning runeblade that he loathed.
His name was Elric of Melniboné…

from the Prologue to Stormbringer

That cover, more than any other, depicts the absolute coolness of swords & sorcery and what I like about it. Michael Whelan’s painting for the 1977 DAW edition of Michael Moorcock’s Stormbringer (1965) is the first time in over two hundred essays I haven’t put the first edition cover first. You can talk about heroism, barbarism vs. civilization and whatnot until the end of the day but, ultimately, this is what I dig. That depiction of Elric, runeblade held high, Horn of Fate trailing behind him, under the storm-wracked heavens, says more about what brings me back to the genre than any book-long disquisition ever could. It’s just so stinking cool. Its appeal is purely and mind-blowingly visceral.

When I was in my mid-teens, all my friends and I devoured these books relentlessly. As soon as one of us finished one series we plunged right into the next. The gradual realization that all of Moorcock’s S&S stories were linked in some crazy pattern made our reading even more compulsive. Many, many elements in his books wound up in roleplaying sessions. I ended at least one universe in a very Moorcockian style.

I did a quick count of how many Moorcock books I’ve read and got over thirty. Some of them, particularly the assorted Eternal Champion books (Elric, Dorian Hawkmoon, Corum, etc.), I’ve read numerous times. I’ve probably read all six Corum novels five or six times. I have definitely not reread any other S&S books, neither Robert E. Howard’s nor Karl Edward Wagner’s, anywhere near that number of times. Moorcock’s books have done more than any other’s to build the framework of what S&S writing is for me if by no other measure than number of pages read. There’s more creativity when it comes to characters and world-building in almost any of his slim DAW yellow-spine books than nearly any monstrous tome I’ve bludgeoned my way through.

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Goth Chick News: Get Ready Vampire Fans, this is Our Year

Goth Chick News: Get Ready Vampire Fans, this is Our Year

It might be due to this being the 125th anniversary of Dracula, written by Bram Stoker and published in 1897. Or, it could be because it has taken 10 years to fully cleanse our collective pallets of emo, flannel-wearing vampires following the movie version of Stephanie Meyers’ Breaking Dawn (Part 2) hitting theaters in 2012. Whatever the reason, the second half of 2022 is about to play host to a plethora of traditional vampire entertainment; meaning if you’re a fan of vampires actually doing vampy things like sucking blood and dressing well, then readers – this is our year.

Below are the three offerings I’m most excited about. This would also have included a theatrical remake of Salem’s Lot had production delays not bumped it to April 2023. Still I’m quivering beneath my bodice and the thought of all the vampire goodness we have to look forward to.

Check it.

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Random Reviews: “The Box” by Bruce Coville

Random Reviews: “The Box” by Bruce Coville

Cover by David Palladini
Cover by David Palladini

Because I’ve been asked about the process by which I’ve been selecting stories for the Random Review series, I thought I’d take a moment to explain how the stories are selected.

I have a database of approximately 42,000 short stories that I own sorted by story title. When it comes time for me to select a story to review as part of this series, I roll several dice (mostly ten sided) to determine which story should be read. I cross reference the numbers that come up on the die with the database to see what story I’ll be reviewing.  This week, I rolled 4,023 which turned out to be Bruce Coville’s short story “The Box.”

One of the things I’m hoping to get out of this series, from a personal point of view, is to discover authors and short stories that I’ve owned and have never read. Of course, I’m also hoping to share those discoveries, good or bad, with the readers of Black Gate.

“The Box” refers to a gift an angel has given to Michael when he was a young boy. The box wasn’t a gift, but rather a duty, for Michael was told to take good care of the box until the angel returned to retrieve it. Holding onto the box shaped his life from the time he received it through school, dating, work, and into old age.

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New Treasures: World Breakers edited by Tony Daniel and Christopher Ruocchio

New Treasures: World Breakers edited by Tony Daniel and Christopher Ruocchio


World Breakers (Baen mass market reprint, July 26, 2022). Cover by Dominic Harman

If you’re one of the (very few) folks who pay attention when I complain, you know that I frequently lament the decline of the mass market science fiction anthology. Book store shelves used to be full of ’em, and nowadays they’ve all but vanished. Folks don’t have an appetite for short fiction these days, at least not in the way they used to. And that’s a shame — anthologies are a great way to discover new writers, fil the time when you can’t commit to a longer work, and just read some great stories.

Tony Daniel and Christopher Ruocchio previously edited Star Destroyers (2018) for Baen, and with Baen senior editor Hank Davis, Ruocchio has produced nearly half a dozen others, including Space Pioneers (2018), Sword & Planet (2021), and Time Troopers (2022). Last year Daniel and Ruocchio released World Breakers, a collection of original stories of super tanks, and what did I find in my local bookstore last week but a handsome and affordable mass market edition. Civilization isn’t dead after all.

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DEMONS ARE A GIRL’S BEST FRIEND: Call of the Cambion (The Cambion Journals — Book Two) by Andrew P. Weston

DEMONS ARE A GIRL’S BEST FRIEND: Call of the Cambion (The Cambion Journals — Book Two) by Andrew P. Weston

Call of the Cambion (The Cambion Journals: Book Two), by Andrew P. Weston. (Raven Tale Publishing. Kindle edition. 190 pages. Released May 2022. Paperback coming soon.)

Augustus Thorne is a Cambion — a human/demon hybrid. Cursed with a hunger he can barely control, it’s been a struggle to retain his humanity. All he’s ever wanted to do is enjoy what everyone else takes for granted. To lead a normal life. Fall in love. Start a family. Alas, such things are denied him because of what he is. Fated to feed off humans, he has channeled his self-loathing into a quest for revenge. For over two hundred years, Augustus has hunted and executed every Incubi and Succubae he can find. But he has yet to track down and kill the one responsible for attacking his mother and causing decades of suffering: his own spawn-father, Fanon.
— From the Prologue to Call of the Cambion

Andrew P. Weston’s second outing is just as good as the first book in his new series, A Hybrid’s Tale, which I have also reviewed here. This time around, in Call of the Cambion, Weston delves deeper into Augustus Thorne’s past, his relationships and his character. Born in 1760, Thorn has sworn to seek out and destroy the Demondim and its “department” of Incubi and Succubae assassins, known as the Forge, as he hunts for Fanon, the Incubus who sired him, then abandoned him and his mortal mother. Thorne is a complicated man: in spite of his supernatural and magical powers, and his killer’s instinct, he is an honorable and loyal man, not without mercy and his own code of ethics. Once again, Weston combines magic, metaphysics, science fiction, and the paranormal to tell his tale and give substance to his world and his characters.

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A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Back Porch Pulp #1

A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Back Porch Pulp #1

“You’re the second guy I’ve met within hours who seems to think a gat in the hand means a world by the tail.” – Phillip Marlowe in Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep

(Gat — Prohibition Era term for a gun. Shortened version of Gatling Gun)

I did six Back Deck Pulp installments. If you don’t know what that was – I had a great back deck at my former house. I would sit out there and read a lot. Mostly pulp stuff, but other things too. And I would take a pic of the book/or rarely, on my Kindle); trying to include some of my yard, or deck, and my leg or knee (hey – it was just a thing). And I’d talk about what I was reading. Usually sharing info about the author.

They were fun little things to share what I liked reading. And often it was a plug for an upcoming A (Black) Gat in the Hand post. I’m in an apartment now, with a small concrete slab back porch. With winter, and then the brutal heat of June, now behind us, I’m getting out there to read a little more. So, Back Porch Pulp makes its debut as Back Deck Pulp’s successor. Enjoy!

JACK HIGGINS

Back Deck Pulp has been re-branded. Back Porch Pulp. I read a $1.99 Jack Higgins ebook, “Comes the Dark Stranger.”

I have 49 Higgins books on the shelves: I’m a fan. That one was ‘meh.’ Predictable and not that exciting.

I’m a big fan of his WW II historical fiction stuff. And the first dozen Sean Dillon books.

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Vintage Treasures: The New Hugo Winners edited by Isaac Asimov

Vintage Treasures: The New Hugo Winners edited by Isaac Asimov


The New Hugo Winners, Volume I & II and The Super Hugos
(Baen, 1991, 1992, and 1992). Covers by Vincent Di Fate, Bob Eggleton, and Frank Kelly Freas

Last month, as part of my master plan to examine every interesting science fiction paperback ever printed, I surveyed five of the finest SF anthologies of all time: the first Hugo Winners volumes, all edited by Isaac Asimov and published by Doubleday between 1962 and 1986.

Although the first two volumes, collected in one big omnibus by the Science Fiction Book Club in 1972, were on the bookshelf of every serious SF fan in the 70 and 80s (and much of the 90s), by the time Volume IV and V were released in the mid-80s, sales had fallen off so significantly that neither one was reprinted in paperback. Asimov, who frequently noted that “the fine folks at Doubleday have never said no to me” — even indulging him with a massive 1,005-page, highly uncommercial vanity project in 1974, Before the Golden Age, a bunch of pulp stories threaded together with Asimov’s reminiscences of growing up in Brooklyn — found Doubleday saying ‘No” to further Hugo volumes.

It was Martin H. Greenberg, Asimov’s frequent collaborator, who talked him into doing additional installments. Together they produced three more: The New Hugo Winners, Volume 1 (1989) & Volume II (1992) and The Super Hugos, released after Asimov’s death in April 1992.

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