Advertisements

Tag Archive: Peter Benchley


Review by C.J. Bunce

To begin with, it helps to know that “father of Miami crime fiction” writer Charles Willeford referred to himself as a sociopath.  According to Lawrence Block, Willeford even wrote his first, self-published sequel to his hit novel Miami Blues to offend the book’s fans, specifically to ward off those wanting a sequel written (only to go ahead and write those sequels for the right price later).  Willeford is one of those celebrated pulp crime writers mentioned by other celebrated pulp crime writers, like Block, and Elmore Leonard, and Quentin Tarentino.  So I was looking forward to my first Willeford novel.  Unfortunately, Understudy for Death, originally published in 1961 as Understudy for Love (or Willeford’s intended title, The Understudy: A Novel of Men and Women), was probably not the best candidate.  A lost novel that for Willeford completists has been a true rarity to find in any condition, Understudy for Death is one of this year’s finds by the Hard Case Crime imprint.  In print for the first time in nearly 60 years, it’s one of the imprint’s rare selections that is of value for study of the genre and curiosity more than a crime novel for folks that simply love crime novels.

The typical reader will pick up Understudy for Death and continue, forging on, against his or her own will, because a protagonist so outrage-inducing certainly must get his comeuppance by the last page of the last chapter.  Right?  Not so for Willeford, who was known for challenging convention with his prose, with his choice of character, and their dark situations.  “Crime Does Not Pay” means nothing to Willeford or his lead character, a lazy self-absorbed newspaper writer who goes out of his way not to do his job the right way.  He also goes out of his way to belittle his wife, his marriage, his boss, his friends, and everyone ese he encounters.  He is in every way a cheat and a liar, lying to himself as he commits to writing and publishing a play, cheating on his wife, gaslighting his wife, lying to his readers, and only doing the rare good deed when it benefits himself.  Worst of all, he cheats the reader.

Or maybe that’s Willeford.  How?  Understudy for Death is not the typical eye-grabbing novel, despite the latest great retro-style Paul Mann cover.  As the cover asks, “Why would a happily married Florida housewife pick up her husband’s .22 caliber Colt Woodsman semi-automatic pistol and use it to kill her two young children and herself?  Cynical newspaper reporter Richard Hudson is assigned to find out–and the assignment will send him down a road of self-discovery in this incisive, no-holds-barred portrait of American marriage in the Mad Men era.”  Yep, that’s pretty dark stuff.  I’d venture that a thousand people could try to create an answer for the question posed and never come up with a pulp crime ending that answers the question as Willeford did.  Neither does newspaperman Hudson discover anything about himself, or change in any meaningful way between page one and page 223.  I also pity any wife that ever had a husband like Hudson in 1961 or any other era (if this is even remotely a real portrait of marriage in 1961, I am surprised women didn’t get rid of all men by 1962).  It’s the spectacularly, radically misogynistic stuff of other contemporary works like that found in Peter Benchley’s Jaws and Ian Fleming’s The Spy Who Loved Me.  Plus the 1960s racism that seems even more prevalent in this branch of crime novels.

Continue reading

Advertisements

Review by C.J. Bunce

Twenty years ago this weekend, the sovereignty of Hong Kong was handed back to China by the United Kingdom as the last act of the old British Empire, without incident.

The anniversary of this transfer of power coincides with the release by Hard Case Crime of one of crime fiction readers’ most eagerly awaited events: the final novel of Donald E. Westlake.  The result surpasses all expectations from one of America’s most celebrated authors:  the adventure of Ian Fleming, the complexity of Michael Crichton, the surprises of Stephen King, the thrills of Peter Benchley, the pulse of John Grisham.  A taut thriller, gripping, heart-pounding, and jaw-dropping, Forever and a Death is Donald E. Westlake saving his best for last.  Forever and a Death is his never-before-published new novel–a James Bond story of sorts–with an intriguing backstory.  Tapped to write the second James Bond film to feature Pierce Brosnan as Bond, Westlake created a compelling story of international intrigue revolving around the return of Hong Kong to China on July 1, 1997.  Because of the success of GoldenEye, the uncertainty of a smooth transfer of power of Hong Kong, and a distaste by the Chinese market for Bond,  the Broccoli family and the Bond franchise machine amicably parted ways with Westlake.  But he then reworked his story in secret, leaving behind at his death in 2008 a stunning action adventure, only snipping the world famous spy from the story.

The result is one of the most intelligent, loathsome, and shrewd Bond villains you’ll ever meet, Richard Curtis, an enormously wealthy business mogul who has amassed a network of corporations across the globe that will allow him to carry out his every wish.  When he is booted from Hong Kong at the transfer of power, he becomes fixated on a power play to destroy Hong Kong as payback.  As with many wealthy CEOs, Curtis is charismatic and influential.  He has encircled himself with individuals who are beholden to him for their own wealth and they would do anything to maintain his and their own lifestyle.  And that includes murder.  Not as preposterous as many Ian Fleming constructions, the method Westlake creates for Curtis is completely believable: using a series of carefully calculated explosions, a soliton wave will be created that will shake the very foundation of Hong Kong and reduce the entirety of the city–skyscrapers, homes, and millions of lives–to sediment.  Westlake introduces his male protagonist to show us the way, a trusted engineer named George Manville (a partner in action with Bond in the original treatment).  Kept in the dark about the ultimate goal, Manville completes the first test on a small abandoned island near Australia that he believes to be part of a plan to make the island into a lavish resort.  But when an environmental group tries to stimy Curtis’s test, a headstrong activist and diver emerges, a woman named Kim Baldur (who would become, to a small extent, Michelle Yeoh’s Wai Lin in Tomorrow Never Dies) dives into the ocean and swims for shore to stop the operation.  Unfortunately for her, Manville neglected to incorporate a kill switch to the project, and she is swallowed by the wave and what would have been a superb Honey Ryder-esque Bond girl is left for dead.  And this is only the introduction of the novel.

Artist Paul Mann completing the original artwork for the cover of Forever and a Death (from Illustrated 007).

Westlake peppers his story with completely unique characters, and readers will find they empathize with even the most minor of them as they are subjected to Curtis’s gruesome tactics.  You may need to remind yourself to breathe as well-meaning whistleblowers find themselves in Hong Kong’s underbelly just as Curtis begins to carry out a plan to walk away from his destruction with a haul of gold bars that rest in the bank vaults beneath the city.

Continue reading

The Jaws Log Carl Gottlieb

Review by C.J. Bunce

A feat of Carl Gottlieb’s contemporary, firsthand account of the making of the movie Jaws, called The Jaws Log, is that the author had not planned on writing the book during the production and yet his resulting work is a modern classic.  After all, how could he have known the movie he was writing the screenplay for would be the kind of success to warrant a “making of” chronicle?  Yet after production, with the buy-in of director Steven Spielberg, Gottlieb, who also played the newspaperman in the film, played a real-life journalist, amassing enough notes and anecdotes to pull the book together.  Along with extensive interviews from the film crew and town locals at the shooting location in Martha’s Vineyard, the result was a step-by-step look at filmmaking, considered by many as one of the best “making of” books ever produced–originally published in 1975 just after the blockbuster was born.  Forty years later the account holds up well.  X-Men series director Bryan Singer has called The Jaws Log “like a little movie director bible.”

If The Jaws Log is your first foray into the making of the movie Jaws, you’re likely to have the same response.  It’s no surprise Gottlieb was a successful screenwriter:  Gottlieb is a superb storyteller.  And if you’re wondering about the source for all the laughs that separate the tension in the film, you’ve Gottlieb to thank for much of that.  Again, no surprise, as Gottlieb also wrote for The Bob Newhart Show, All in the Family, and The Odd Couple, as well as the screenplay a few years later for Steve Martin’s The Jerk. 

From The Jaws Log

We can also thank Gottlieb for gutting so much of author Peter Benchley’s novel that didn’t work (we recounted the elements earlier this summer in our Retro Review of the novel here at borg.com).  The success of the movie, coupled with the absolute silence from critics for cutting and re-writing so much of the source work, is Gottlieb’s true legacy.

Continue reading

A close up for Bruce the shark in Jaws

Review by C.J. Bunce

In time for the 40th anniversary of the movie Jaws, Titan Books issued an updated edition of Jaws: Memories from Martha’s Vineyard, a rare and unusual chronicle of the making of a film.  Told via photographs and interviews from the locals who helped literally make the film, from construction crews to performers tapped to play key roles in the movies, Memories offers yet another view of the making of the first modern summer blockbuster.

What differentiates this book from other works on this movie (or any other movie) is the “local” perspective.  Instead of giving the standard Hollywood view of the “making of” a movie using interviews with the crew and producers as you’d normally find on the TV and Film shelf, the authors, Jaws memorabilia collectors Matt Taylor and Jim Beller, take a historical research approach.  They rely on primary source material, through hundreds of hours of interviews with every islander who would speak with them, newspaper clippings from 1974, scrapbooks and photo albums that have sat on shelves for 35 years, including plenty of information never before seen by the general public.  The result is a story told in photos rarely seen for any film or film franchise–something you’d only find from years of books published about Star Wars, Star Trek, and the Indiana Jones movies.

Amity Island billboard in production

The story is told chronologically, day by day from the selection of the filming locations on Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts to pre-production and on through the wrap-up of filming.  The memorabilia and ephemera pictured includes everything from the remnants of the actual boats used in the movie to the more mundane, like checks and contracts for day laborers.  Yet every piece is interesting, like candid Polaroids showing Robert Shaw’s first day on set and Spielberg at the cabin he lived at during the shoot.  The experience of sifting through all that remains of the production is a bit like spending a weekend at a small town local library researching any historical event from a town’s past.

Continue reading

Jaws-paperback

Reviewed by C.J. Bunce

For the Fourth of July that is arriving on the heels of the fortieth anniversary of the premiere of the blockbuster movie Jaws, what better time for a summer reading of Peter Benchley’s bestselling novel that the movie is based on?

Well it was a good notion.

And it’s the notion in the novel Jaws–the premise–that fortunately inspired scriptwriter Carl Gottlieb, and Benchley himself–to both expand the novel, and more importantly, whittle it down, into such a finely executed, classic film.

But wait, Jaws was a bestseller!  A book that was on everyone’s bookshelf in the early 1970s!  Who doesn’t remember that book cover, and who didn’t sing the praises of that book?

The first third of the novel is quite good, exciting reading that fans of the film will be familiar with:  The death of a young woman at night swimming with her boyfriend in the northwest beach community of Amity, the politics of Chief Brody and the Mayor keeping the beaches open, and the subsequent death of a boy and lambasting of Brody by the boy’s mother for not closing down the beaches after the first death.  The introductory chapters really set up the reader for a wild ride.

Jaws_novel_cover

Unfortunately from there the story drifts off course and never returns to the excitement of the set-up.

Continue reading

%d bloggers like this: