Book Review: HANDSOME JOHNNY, The Life and Death of Johnny Rosselli, Gentleman Gangster, Hollywood Producer, CIA Assassin by Lee Server (St. Martin’s Press 2108)

Ever since THE GODFATHER, I’ve been fascinated by the history of the Mafia in America. I’ve devoured just about every book on the subject, and consider myself a bit of an expert on this clandestine crime cartel. I believe it was while reading Ovid Demaris’s 1980 THE LAST MAFIOSO, a biography of gangster-turned-rat Jimmy “The Weasel” Fratianno, that I first became aware of the man known as Johnny Rosselli. His story captivated my interest, so when I saw a new biography of Rosselli was on the shelves at the local Barnes & Noble, I thought it’d make a great Christmas present… for myself! Naturally, I bought a copy, eager to learn more about this man who played a pivotal role in both the Mafia’s rise and the shadowy underbelly of American life in the 20th Century.

Author Lee Server is someone I’m unfamiliar with, which is strange, because his previously released titles sound right up my alley. There’s THE BIG BOOK OF NOIR, a compendium of articles about film noir, pulp fiction, and the like, and biographies of Sam Fuller, Robert Mitchum, and Ava Gardner. Obviously, Server knows the Hollywood turf, and HANDSOME JOHNNY is a meticulously researched account of Rosselli’s life. At times, his prose reminded me of James Ellroy, a perfect fit for this material.

The dapper Johnny Rosselli

Server takes us on a trip down the dark alleys and glittering neon lights of 20th Century America, and Johnny Rosselli was there for it all. The slum kid immigrant who hit the road as a teen; Prohibition in the days of Al Capone; Hollywood’s classic era, where he made friends with Harry Cohn, slept with Jean Harlow, married ‘B’ starlet June Lang, milked the studios with shady labor practices, and even produced a couple of films (CANON CITY, HE WALKED BY NIGHT); the glory days of Las Vegas; political shenaningans with Joe Kennedy; and the ill-fated attempt by the CIA to assassinate Fidel Castro, which may have cost President John Kennedy his life. The famous and the infamous rub shoulders behind this opaque curtain, lifted by Server in a gripping read I just couldn’t put down. You won’t believe some of the names who pop up in HANDSOME JOHNNY, but I’m not talkin’ – you’ll have to pick up a copy for yourself!

Rosselli in later years

My only quibble with Server comes when speaking about Rosselli’s involvement with Eagle-Lion Films, successor to Poverty Row studio PRC. He calls Edgar G. Ulmer’s DETOUR  a “rock-bottom crime drama” and states a “doped-up Bela Lugosi” was on the roster. DETOUR has rightly been hailed as a classic in the film noir canon, while Lugosi only made one pic for PRC, THE DEVIL BAT (a personal favorite of mine!). But I’m just nitpicking here based on my own personal bias. Gangster buffs, movie gossip fans, political junkies, and history nerds like myself will devour HANDSOME JOHNNY like a platter of calamari washed down with strong bathtub gin, a right-between-the-eyes look at Rosselli the man and a side of America you don’t learn about in school. I highly recommend you buy it on your next trip to the bookstore!

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Halloween Havoc! Book Extra: DARK DETECTIVES (Edited by Stephen Jones; Titan Books paperback 2015)


Back in September, I was browsing at the local Barnes & Noble (as I frequently do, given the lack of independent bookstores around here) looking for something to review this Halloween season. I’d just finished with Stephen King’s REVIVAL (Pocket Books paperback, 2017), and while it’s good, everybody does King this time of year, and I wanted something different. I wandered through the fantasy section, and waaaay up on the top shelf I spotted a title that caught my interest. DARK DETECTIVES: An Anthology of Supernatural Mysteries, combining two of my favorite genres, horror and detective fiction! Curiosity piqued, I grabbed the book and bought it (along with the great James Lee Burke’s latest novel, ROBICHEAUX).

DARK DETECTIVES, first published as a limited edition in 1999, features ten short stories, some old, some written especially for the anthology, by authors I’m familiar with (and I assume you are too, if you’re into horror fiction): names like Clive Barker, R. Chetwynd-Hayes, Neil Gaiman, Brian Lumley, and Manly Wade Wellman. Interspersed between these stories of supernatural sleuthing is Kim Newman’s serial “Seven Stars”, based loosely on Bram Stoker’s novel JEWEL OF THE SEVEN STARS, using it as a starting point to tell a Lovecraftian tale  that spans the centuries. Each chapter features one of Newman’s creations battling against the other-worldly power of the jewel: Charles Beauregard and Edwin Winthrop of The Diogenes Club, the 70’s-styled sleuth Richard Jeperson, futuristic Jerome Rhodes (aka Dr. Shade), and the vampiress Genevieve Dieudonne. There are some amazing twists and turns in this 187-page novella, and it will definitely hold the interest of any horror aficionado.

The other stories are quite good as well, some more on the detective side (Peter Tremayne’s “Our Lady of Death”, Basil Copper’s Sherlock Holmes pastiche “The Adventure of the Crawling Horror”), others out-and-out horror (Lumley’s “Dr. Marigny’s Clock”, Brian Mooney’s “Vultures Gather”, Barker’s “Lost Souls”, Gaiman’s prose poem “Bay Wolf”), all guaranteed to keep you up at night. Another thing about DARK DETECTIVES that was fun for me is the connection between the stories and film. Stoker’s original “Seven Stars” was made into a Hammer film in 1971 (BLOOD FROM THE MUMMY’S TOMB ), Chetwyn-Hayes’s short stories have been adapted into the horror portmanteaus FROM BEYOND THE GRAVE and THE MONSTER CLUB, and Barker is well-known as a filmmaker in his own right (HELLRAISER, NIGHTBREED, LORDS OF ILLUSION). Some of the stories also feature famous film luminaries along the way, Familiar Faces like John Barrymore, Errol Flynn, Peter Lorre, John Carradine, and… John Wayne??? Wait, what’s The Duke doing among all this Lovecraftian weirdness, you may well ask – but you’ll have to read Marty Burns’s “The Man Who Shot The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” to find that out!

An example of Randy Broecker’s artwork

Illustrations by noted fantasy artist Randy Broecker accompany each spooky story. Editor Stephen Jones, winner of the Lifetime Achievement Award from the prestigious Horror Writers Association, has complied another wonderful collection of creepiness sure to please the horror lover in all of you. I suggest you scan your own local B&N, or wherever you may go to get your literary horror fix, and pick up a copy soon as you can, gather by the fireplace with your favorite beverage, and be prepared to let some spellbinding authors carry you to places you dare not go alone!

Book Review: THE LAST STAND by Mickey Spillane (Hard Case Crime 2018)

2018 is the centennial anniversary of Mickey Spillane’s birth! Spillane got his start in comic books, then caused a sensation with his 1947 novel I, THE JURY, introducing the world to that hardest of hardboiled PI’s, Mike Hammer. Hard Case Crime, an imprint every pulp fiction fan should know about, celebrates Spillane’s birth by releasing THE LAST STAND, The Mick’s last completed novel, with a bonus unpublished novella from the early 1950’s.

Spillane with friend/literary executor Max Allan Collins

Mickey’s literary executor and friend Max Allan Collins writes the introduction. Collins is no stranger to the hardboiled genre himself, having been Chester Gould’s replacement on the long-running comic strip Dick Tracy from 1977-92, author of the graphic novel ROAD TO PERDITION, and the Quarry series of books (made into a Showtime series in 2016). Since Spillane’s death in 2006, Collins has been editing and completing the writer’s (“I’m not an author, I’m a writer”, he once said in an interview) unfinished works.

The unpublished 50’s novella “A Bullet for Satisfaction” is up first, and fans of Spillane will rejoice – it’s truly Vintage Spillane, a brutal tale of corruption, gangsters, violence, and femme fatales! Ex-cop Rod Dexter (how’s that for a macho name!) wades through this sordid tale filled to the brim with murder, sadism, and plenty of sex. You can tell where Collins did some editing and rewriting here, because good as he is, nobody captures Spillane’s voice quite like Spillane; multitudes have tried, but The Mick is unique! Take this example from Page 42:

“Three days ago I was a cop. Now the cop was gone. What was left? Nothing but a thirst for booze, quenched by a bender, and vengeance, which I’d quench a whole other way. And when you’re playing a game like this, there’s only one way to play it, and that’s a hell of a lot rougher than they do.

They were going to die. Every last one of them would feel pain and I would receive satisfaction by watching their expressions as I pulled the trigger“.

Or this gem found on Page 116:

“A blast from the open door took her head off and splattered it against the far wall, where dripping blood and chunks of bone and gobs of gore and one lonely eyeball stuck there like the work of some cut-rate Picasso. Then a body getting no signals from an obliterated brain toppled on its back with a rattling thud, and the headless body lay limply on the floor”.

See what I mean? Vintage Mickey Spillane!

The writer (don’t call him author!) in his twilight years

Next is “The Last Stand”, Mickey’s final novel published for the first time anywhere. This one finds a – dare I say it? – much more mellow Spillane, now 88 years old but still writing in his signature voice. The sex and violence are toned down, but that terse style is still there, only with a touch more humor that comes with reflective old age. More of an adventure than hardboiled crime, it follows ex-serviceman Joe Gillian (named after Mickey’s friend, longtime Charlton Comics writer Joe Gill) as he’s forced to land his vintage plane in a Southwestern desert. There he encounters Sequoia Pete, a young Indian whose horse has thrown him, and the unlikely pair banter their way through a desert trek, where Joe discovers the joys of eating rattlesnake, and an ancient arrowhead loaded with radioactivity.

Returning to Pete’s village on the rez, Joe will meet his new friend’s gorgeous sister Running Fox, whose jealous would-be beau Big Arms sets out to kill his white rival. The plot involves hidden treasure, gangsters, FBI agents, and a threat to national security. With “The Last Stand”, Spillane shows us he’s still a master storyteller, older and knocking on Jehovah’s door but still managing to entertain his audience. Fans of Mickey Spillane will definitely love THE LAST STAND, and for the uninitiated the book gives you a chance to read him in both his early, hardboiled phase and his last, more seasoned work. I’m a huge fan, so don’t just take my word for it: go out and buy a copy, and prepare to be thrilled!

Book Review: NOIR by Christopher Moore (William Morrow 2018)

In between everything else I do, I read about a book a week, mainly mystery fiction. Current favorites include James Lee Burke, Lee Child, Michael Connelly, Janet Evanovich, and John Sandford, all with their own unique styles, and all masters of the genre. But when I need a good laugh, I pick up Christopher Moore. I first became aware of Moore’s work with his brilliant 2002 novel LAMB, OR THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO BIFF, CHRIST’S CHILDHOOD PAL, an irreverent satire narrated by Jesus’s good buddy Biff that’s as outrageous as it sounds, and sinfully funny to boot.

Robert Mitchum and Jane Greer in “Out of the Past” (RKO 1947) have nothing on Sammy and The Cheese!

This time around, Moore goes from taking on the Scriptures to the hard-boiled world of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. The novel is set in 1947 San Francisco, a very good year for noir (OUT OF THE PAST, NIGHTMARE ALLEY , BORN TO KILL , LADY FROM SHANGHAI , and other seminal films noir were made that year), as we follow the adventures of Sammy “Two Toes” Tiffin, a down-on-his-luck bartender with a past  working in a seedy dive owned by a sleazy cheapskate. A femme fatale named Stilton (nicknamed “The Cheese”), a serviceman’s widow who can crack wise with the best of ’em, walks into the bar, and Sammy goes head over high heels for her. There’s plenty of intrigue involving an Air Force general who wants to procure some dames dressed like Dorothy in THE WIZARD OF OZ, a crooked cop who wants a piece of everyone’s action, the dark alleys of Chinatown where men drink snake piss to gain virility… oh, and a man from outer space! Told you Moore was unique!

Distinguished author Christopher Moore

Sammy narrates most of this outlandish stew, except for some chapters told by… well, I’m not gonna say, you’ll have to read it and find out yourselves. There are a ton of characters woven in and out of this funny tale, friends and foes alike of Sammy and The Cheese, and they’re all carefully crafted by the skillful Mr. Moore. Parts of NOIR are laugh-out-loud hysterical, parts drew a chuckle, but all of it kept me smiling throughout the brisk 330 pages (not to mention the Afterword and the special section in the Barnes & Noble edition, an essay by Moore titled “Tough Guy Talk”). Christopher Moore is a satirist worth reading, and NOIR ranks among his best, which means its real damn good. Perfect for beach reading, or those rainy nights when it’s Three AM and you’re down to your last bourbon. Pick up a copy today and discover the wacky world of NOIR and Christopher Moore!

Book Review: ORSON WELLES’S LAST MOVIE by Josh Karp (St. Martin’s Press 2015)

There’s a lot of buzz around the film community about THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND, Orson Welles’s unfinished film begun in 1970 that he worked on for almost a decade. Welles used different film stocks (8, 16, & 35 MM) and varied his styles to create a film-within-a-film focusing on the early 70’s clash between the Old Hollywood of the studio system and the New Hollywood auteurs (Welles, the ultimate auteur himself, disdained the term).  Netflix has announced the film has finally been restored and completed with the help of an Indiegogo campaign, and will be available for viewing sometime in 2018 (When, Netflix, when???). In the meantime, you can read author Josh Karp’s fascinating 2015 book ORSON WELLES’S LAST MOVIE: THE MAKING OF THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND.

Karp gives us a fast-paced look behind the scenes of a genius at work, creating art on the fly despite constant financial woes. Film buffs will not be able to put this book down as we get a glimpse into Welles’s creative process, and his determination to make his film his way. Welles was a cinematic genius to be sure, but the sum of his parts was greater then the whole: a tyrant on the set, a charming personality, an obsessed madman, and an artist out to prove to the world he wasn’t ready to be put out to pasture just yet.

John Huston, Orson Welles, Peter Bogdanovich

We also get a seat for the long, long gestation of THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND following Welles’s death in 1985, involving among many other setbacks the Iranian Revolution, his mistress Oja Kodar, daughter Beatrice, and various moneymen out to recoup their losses. The players involved in the movie read like a Who’s Who of Hollywood: John Huston , Peter Bogdanovich, Edmond O’Brien , Mercedes McCambridge, Dennis Hopper , future mega-producer Frank Marshall, and low budget cinematographer Gary Graver, whose devotion to Welles’s vision was unparalleled, and who supported himself during lean periods by making porn films (and you’ll discover how Graver got Welles to actually edit one of the things for him… I won’t tell you which!).

ORSON WELLES’S LAST MOVIE deserves to be on any film lover’s bookshelf. It’s a spellbinding look at an artist struggling against the odds to get his work onscreen the way he wants, and the aftermath of that process. Welles never did quite finish editing his film, but thanks to Netflix we’ll soon be able to see as close a proximity to his vision as humanly possible. I for one can’t wait to watch!

Book Review: WE’LL ALWAYS HAVE CASABLANCA by Noah Isenberg (W.W. Norton 2017)

CASABLANCA was released seventy-five years ago on November 26, and The Cult of Casablanca is stronger than ever! The film resonates with young and old alike in its themes of lost love, redemption, and answering to a higher moral authority. Noah Isenberg’s latest book, WE’LL ALWAYS HAVE CASABLANCA: THE LIFE, LEGEND, AND AFTERLIFE OF HOLLYWOOD’S MOST BELOVED MOVIE, takes a look behind the Silver Screen to track the history of the film  from its beginnings through its continuing popularity today.

Isenberg, a professor of film studies at The New School and author of the definitive EDGAR G. ULMER: A FILMMAKER AT THE MARGINS (2014), gives the reader a three-pronged look at the film. In the first, he meticulously delineates the screenplay’s roots, from its birth as the play Everybody Comes to Rick’s by Murray Burnett and Joan Alison, to the adaptation by brothers Julius and Philip Epstein, to the contributions of writers Howard Koch and Casey Robinson. All this is carefully researched by Isenberg through interviews and the Warner Brothers archives, unearthing the correspondence of producer Hal Wallis and studio chiefs Jack and Harry Warner, among others.

The second prong deals with the  film’s memorable cast and crew. Yes, the big names are all there – Bogie, Bergman, Henreid, director Michael Curtiz, composer Max Steiner – but Isenberg also shines the spotlight of many of the smaller players, most of whom were refugees from war-torn Europe. Though these actors were big names themselves in their respective native countries, the majority of them were reduced to being bit players in Hollywood, a fact that made them feel as if they’d turned from “St. Bernards to Dachshunds”. The plight of actors Curt Bois, Marcel Dalio, Lotte Palfi, and Hans von Twardowski, forced out of the limelight by circumstance and into lesser, sometimes uncredited roles, caused much bitterness among these talented strangers in a strange land.

Finally, Isenberg takes us to the CASABLANCA phenomenon, starting shortly after the death of Humphrey Bogart. Revival houses like The Brattle in Cambridge, MA brought the film a new, college age audience in the late 50’s. It’s anti-authoritarian stance and theme of fighting for a just cause also  resonated with the 60’s counterculture movement, and of course the film’s romanticism played a large part in that. Isenberg looks at the movie’s lasting impact in pop culture, even today, and discusses several critical points of view, not all of which are favorable (which is sacrilegious far as I’m concerned!).

WE’LL ALWAYS HAVE CASABLANCA is a surprisingly easy read. Only the arms of Morpheus prevented me from finishing it in one sitting. Then again, you know what a huge CASABLANCA buff I am! Even if you’re not as obsessive about the movie as me, if you’re a classic film buff (and I assume most of you reading this blog are) the book is a fascinating look at Hollywood filmmaking in the 40’s, when the studio dream factories were in their glory. I highly recommend it to those of you interested in movie history – in fact, it would make the perfect Christmas gift for the film fan in your life!.

More on CASABLANCA from Cracked Rear Viewer:

Top Ten Reasons CASABLANCA is The Greatest Movie Ever Made!!

Here’s Looking at You On The Big Screen, CASABLANCA!

Pulp Fiction #1: Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer

“The roar of the .45 shook the room. Charlotte struggled back a step. Her eyes were a symphony of incredulity, an unbelieving witness to truth. Slowly, she looked down at the ugly swelling in her belly where the bullet went in.

“How c-could you”, she gasped.

I only had a moment before talking to a corpse. I got it in.

“It was easy”, I said. “

– from I, THE JURY by Mickey Spillane, first published in 1947 by EP Dutton

Mickey Spillane’s PI Mike Hammer made his debut in I, THE JURY, and set the shocked literary world on its collective ear with its sex-and-violence laden story. Critics savaged Spillane, but the book buying public ate it up, turning I, THE JURY into a best seller and launching Hammer as a pop culture icon. Hammer’s roots were deeply set in the bloody pulps and another 20th century phenomenon… the four-color comics!

Spillane got his start writing for both mediums. Born in Brooklyn in 1918, the tough-talking Irishman found he had a knack for storytelling, and by the 1930’s managed to make a few sales to the pulps. Spillane soon joined the fledgling comic book world, cranking out stories for Timely’s (later known as Marvel Comics) Human Torch, Captain America, Sub-Mariner, Fawcett’s Captain Marvel, and a ton of those two-page “fillers” publishers used to print to meet the cheaper second-class postal rates. Like most red-blooded American males of the era, Spillane joined the service during WWII, and when it was over he returned to grinding ’em out. Only this time, Spillane had an idea.

Spillane dreamed up a tough private eye named Mike Danger and, together with artist Mike Roy, looked to sell it to the lucrative syndicated newspaper comics market, without success. Undaunted, Spillane took his project and wrote a novel based on the character, now renamed Mike Hammer. The writer (“I’m not an author”, he once claimed) elevated the levels of sex and violence, whipping up his lurid adaptation in a little over a week. Publisher E.P. Dutton bought the book, titled I, THE JURY, and history was made. The critics lambasted Spillane’s literary style (or lack thereof), but post-war readers grabbed onto all the sex and violence within the book’s pages and begged for more.

“The guy was dead as hell. He lay on the floor in his pajamas with his brains scattered all over the floor and my gun in his hand”

  • – from VENGEANCE IS MINE , first published in 1950 by EP Dutton

Mike Hammer is Spillane’s macho fantasy alter ego. The PI was, like his creator, a World War II vet, now a Cold War Anti-Communist who played by his own set of rules. He was a law-and-order guy dishing out vigilante justice, not interested in waiting for an incompetent system that rarely worked for the little guy. Hammer had a way with the ladies, yet the love of his life was loyal secretary Velma. His two best friends were NY Homicide Captain Pat Chambers and his trusty Colt .45, which served him well when delivering just desserts to the lowlifes and corrupt officials who deserved them. Say what you will about Hammer’s misanthropic methods or misogynistic viewpoints; he was a stand-up guy who got the job done… by any means necessary!

Ralph Meeker as Hammer in “Kiss Me Deadly” (1955)

Spillane’s terse, graphic novels exploded in the public conscience like a .45 slug through flesh and bone, and it was inevitable Mike Hammer would blast his way to the Silver Screen. Tough guy actor Biff Elliot was the first to play Hammer in a 1953 adaptation of I, THE JURY, which of course was considerably toned down for the screen. Probably the best known movie Hammer was Ralph Meeker, who starred in director Robert Aldrich’s KISS ME DEADLY (1955), as bleak and violent a film noir as you’re likely to find. Robert Bray next stepped into Hammer’s shoes for 1957’s MY GUN IS QUICK, a low-budget but fairly entertaining entry. A syndicated television version of MIKE HAMMER was run from 1958-60, with Darren McGavin as the PI, a series decried by critics for its excessive violence – hey, what did they expect?

Mickey Spillane as his creation Mike Hammer in “The Girl Hunters” (1963)

Mike Hammer took a ten-year hiatus before Spillane resurrected him in the 1962 novel THE GIRL HUNTERS. Believing his beloved Velma dead, Hammer’s been on a booze soaked bender before learning she’s actually alive, and he begins his regeneration from drunken bum to instrument of vengeance. This book was made into a film a year later with none other than Spillane himself cast as Hammer! It’s as violent as you’d think with the author doing a not-bad job. Spillane had always been a self promoter, and in later years he made the rounds of TV talk shows and even starred in a series of commercials for Miller Lite Beer!

Stacy Keach, TV’s greatest Mike Hammer

Hammer was back with (what else?) a vengeance, and a new audience was turned on to Spillane’s sex-and-violence fueled world. In the Reagan-era 1980’s a new TV version was broadcast on CBS, starring Stacy Keach, by far the most popular of Hammer portrayers. The stylish series was a hit, that is until Keach got busted in Britain on cocaine smuggling charges and had to serve time in prison. He returned to the role in (appropriately enough) the 1986 TV movie THE RETURN OF MIKE HAMMER, and again the 90’s with the  syndicated MIKE HAMMER, PRIVATE EYE series.

“There isn’t a Coliseum anymore, but the city is a bigger bowl, and it seats more people. The razor-sharp claws aren’t those of wild animals, but man’s can be just as sharp and twice as vicious. You have to be quick, and you have to be able, or you become one of the devoured, and if you can kill first, no matter how and no matter who, you can return to the comfortable chair and the comfortable fire. But you have to be quick. And able. Or you’ll be dead”

-from MY GUN IS QUICK, first published in 1950 by EP Dutton

Tough as a two dollar steak, Mike Hammer refuses to die, even though his creator Spillane passed away in 2006. Mystery writer Max Allan Collins, who once took over the Dick Tracy comic strip and penned the graphic novel THE ROAD TO PERDITION, has been chronicling the hard-boiled adventures of Hammer since 2007, working from Spillane’s own unfinished manuscripts. As long as there’s a need for a ruthless avenger to take on the dirty jobs no one else can, there will be a need for Mike Hammer, political correctness be damned!