Capsule Reviews of Crime and SciFi

Redshirts – John Scalzi
Redshirts won the 2013 Hugo and some other awards. I don’t read many new sci fi novels so maybe it was a bad year because Redshirts was a pretty flaccid farce. It’s a self-deprecating spoof of Star Trek that comes off as self-satisfied and even mean spirited at times. As comedy it’s a limp. As a work of sci fi it’s derivative and poking fun at itself does little to stiffen this wilted story. The characters although they are meant to be archetypes, come off as carbon copies of one another. Even the writing itself was a bit clunky. I listened to the audio book and found it tough to get into, more interesting toward the middle but ultimately regrettable at the conclusion.

A Kiss Before Dying – Ira Levin
Regarded as a modern crime classic, A Kiss Before Dying is deserving of every morsel of that accolade. This thing is stuffed with suspense and surprises. Every character is so well shaped. It’s especially interesting getting into the scrambled mind of the killer. Ira Levin’s writing is balanced and smooth, and even though it’s his first novel it reads like an aged fine wine. Read A Kiss Before Dying!

Night of the Cooters – Howard Waldrop
I am a fan of Mr. Waldrop, so I had some high expectations for this story collection. I was disappointed. It starts off with the brilliantly titled “Night of the Cooters”. The story, which is a parallel telling of H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds set in Texas, is just as high flying as its title suggests. Unfortunately however the rest of the tales are a mixed bag with several of them missing the mark. The 1940s pulp styled “Thirty Minutes Over Broadway” was a worthwhile adventure and “The Adventure of the Grinder’s Whistle” is a fun little Jack the Ripper mystery. However, some of the tales I couldn’t even finish or just went nowhere. Rather than this book, I’d recommend reading Night of the Cooters here or as part of another anthology.

The Maltese Falcon – Dashiell Hammett
It’s hard to believe slick private eye Sam Spade only appearance in a novel was this one classic Dashiell Hammett masterpiece. Sam Spade is the coolest, most bad ass PI around. San Francisco is his town, don’t fuck with him. I love this character. What colorful dialog. This book is a classic to the core. This is the blueprint for noir novels and film. Bogart’s portrayal in the 1941 film is fantastic, but read the book to get the full picture of Sam Spade and all the convincing characters in this clever and exciting seminal novel. A must read.

Summer Reading 2013

Summer time is a fun time to read!   I’ve read a few books this summer, some good some not.  Lets discuss.

Web of the City (1958) by Harlan Ellison

Web of the City is Harlan’s first novel and it is great!   It depicts young street gangs in New York City in the fifties.   The plot is a somewhat familiar one but in Harlan’s capable hands it’s compelling.   The characters are vivid and the action sequences are exciting.  It’s a harrowing trip into a violent world.  It’s too bad Harlan didn’t write many novels (only three) because this book demonstrates he does it well. Read it!


The Jaguar Hunter (1987) by Lucius Shepard

This is a fantastic (both in the excellent and weird sense) collection of fantasy and sf stories.   The stories range from short to novella length.   Lucius Shepard is a pleasure to read.   His prose is impeccable, his ideas are interesting, and his tales keep you absorbed.   He puts his well-drawn characters into interesting settings that, in his extensive travels, he’s obviously visited himself.   You get a sense of being there without being bored by excessive description.  Shepard is one talented son of a gun. Highly recommended.

The Beast House (1986) by Richard Laymon

What crap!   This book is a sequel to Laymon’s first novel The Cellar which I haven’t read nor will I.   The story is typical monster fare with drab characters.   The writing is stilted and downright torturous at times; peppered with pointless descriptions of boring minutiae devoid of any story or character development purpose.  And the monsters are quite silly.   There are a few moments of suspense that redeemed The Beast House enough for me to slog through it, but I don’t recommend it.


The Dreaming Jewels (1950) by Theodore Sturgeon

I’m a big fan of many of Sturgeon’s works and I can now add The Dreaming Jewels to that list of inspired sf.   This book reminded me a bit of Ray Bradbury, for its carnival setting and Philip K. Dick for its questions of what makes us human.   The characters are really the focus of this novel; they are unique and they grow and change through their journey.   The dreaming jewels themselves are also a really neat sci fi concept, I won’t spoil it here. Sturgeon is a skillful writer that weaves serious, thought provoking ideas into entertaining stories, The Dreaming Jewels being a fine example. Get it!


Room (2010) by Emma Donoghue

Room is a “story ripped from today’s headlines.”   It’s about a woman who is kidnapped and has a child fathered by her abductor.   What makes this novel noteworthy is that it’s told from the viewpoint of the five year old child that has spent life in captivity.   Room has been praised to death and has won multiple awards.   I’m not quite sure what all the fuss is about.   The voice of the five year old narrator was inconsistent, seeming sophisticated beyond his years at times and sort of obtuse at others.   The plot was interesting for the greater part of the first half of the book, and built up some genuine suspense in the middle, but unfortunately it fizzled out after that; the second half was quite tedious.

The Black Dahlia Avenger Rides Again


Black Dahlia Avenger II by Steve Hodel
Steve Hodel's third book


The Black Bird’s True Crime Book Review:
Steve Hodel’s Black Dahlia Avenger II

It goes without saying that I’m obsessed with the murder of beautiful, young Elizabeth Short ““ Los Angeles’ Black Dahlia Murder case of 1947. Just take a peek at my WoW bio. I admit that, even though I don’t agree with every theory presented, I simply have to read  each book published on the subject. A coupla good examples: I repeatedly refer back to John Gilmore’s Severed or the chapter in Craig Rice’s 45 Murderers. I especially love prowling through my vast collection of original newspaper clippings. You see, I never stick all my eggs in one basket as far as suspects go.

So it was, friends and fiends, that my eyes bulged when I read the news: former LAPD detective Steve Hodel, author of Black Dahlia Avenger and Most Evil, was publishing a third book on the alleged criminal exploits of his father, Dr. George Hill Hodel. I confess that I rather liked the first BDA. It was a professional affair, save for Hodel’s propensity to phrase things in a manner like “Then dad did [blank]…” As if every last drop was established fact. Dr. George Hodel, for the uninitiated, was a wealthy SoCal doctor who specialized in venereal disease control, and lover of bohemian and surrealist art.  Another confession: I was increasingly sceptical of Steve Hodel’s allegations in his second exposé, Most Evil. That he whole-heartedly believed his dad was also the Zodiac killer of 1960s to Seventies NoCal infamy. I still devoured the book, and found it well-presented compared to other Dahlia tomes like Jacque Daniels’ Curse of the Black Dahlia (with its shoddy design, layout and proofreading). There’s much to be said for a pro layout and making certain there are no grievous typos and grammar blunders, especially in a print-on-demand book (BDA II is POD). On the whole, BDA doesn’t suffer from the usual textual and layout foibles of many POD titles.

Elizabeth Short at Marshall High School, Oct. 1946
Elizabeth Short at Marshall High School, Oct. 1946


Dr. George Hill Hodel
Is he the Avenger?

Another humongous “true crime” outing, BDA focuses slightly less on the Zodiac than Most Evil. The focal point of BDA II remains George Hodel. Elizabeth Short is dealt with almost peripherally, mainly as mentioned mostly as a victim and in the investigation of her murder. Details of her life are few and far between. I was hoping”“if the title itself was any indication”“to read more background on Beth Short herself. Nope! Hodel has been gracious enough with his past readers in sharing many new updates free of charge through blogs and FAQs on his website. I was likewise hoping that he wouldn’t repeat himself in BDA II, heaping much material available online on our plates. I suppose this may work fine for the casual crime enthusiast who is reading BDA II with little retention of Hodel’s previous two books or the case itself. Hodel belabors himself and us w What about the compulsive tendencies of the “Dahliaphile” type folks out there? The ones who pore over every nook and cranny of minutiae? It will most likely be a drawback for the obsessed (like me!).   Maybe it was necessary to repeat for those with short attention spans. Also, when you’re bibliomaniac (like your humble Black Bird), you prefer to refer back to a book than constantly hooked up to electronic gadgetry. In that respect, having the blog and FAQ items in BDA II can be looked upon as a benefit. I consider both sides of the coin.

There are a few intriguing and not-so repetitive sections of BDA II. One contains letters from Steve Hodel’s mother, Dorothy (Harvey Huston) Hodel, to her ex-husband iconic director John Huston, many mentioning danger she perceived from her most recent ex, George. Another interesting bit  fleshes out the life of Madi (or Mattie) Comfort, George Hodel’s black mistress.  Comfort revealed her secret before she passed away in the mid 2000s ““ that she believed George Hodel did indeed kill Elizabeth Short. Another section introduced a bit of new info from a well-known surrealist photographer (now deceased), which furthers the possibility that foul things were afoot at the gaudy, exotic  Lloyd Wright-built Sowden house ““ occupied by the suave Dr. Hodel in the mid 1940s ““ at 5121 Franklin Ave., Hollywood, CA.

Lloyd Wright Sowden House
Murder Mansion?

My verdict? Well, I could do without all of the statements Steve Hodel makes beginning with the phrases “we now know that” or “we know that.” Do we really know for sure? How much is hearsay, especially in the case of unrecorded conversations with deceased people? I wish the public could finally know the full truth about Beth Short’s murder, the many other women slain in L.A. throughout the 1940s, the Zodiac, etc. But I’m not so certain yet that I can point my finger at any one suspect, much less George Hodel. I consider Hodel, along with others. I’m a completist, and I recommend others like me pick this puppy up. If you enjoy reading about seedy, seamy L.A. corruption, there are plenty of juicy details. I’ve come away from BDA II feeling, more than ever, that George Hodel was definitely involved in some very shady affairs. I’m convinced he molested his own daughter (probably paid off the authorities  to be proven not-guilty), performed abortions when they were illegal in L.A. (although I feel women should always have the choice!) and committed insurance fraud. Murder? I don’t know about that just yet. Perhaps time will tell. Perhaps not!

P.S. I invite WoW readers to share their opinion on Steve Hodel’s books, the Black Dahlia case, the so-called L.A. Lone Women Murders of the 1940s, the Zodiac, etc.