A Gun for Honey, by G.G.Fickling

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“Lies, thighs and private-eyes.”

Honey West is best known as the heroine of a mid-60’s TV show created by Aaron Spelling, starring Anne Francis. But her origins actually date back almost a decade further, to a series of pulp detective novels written by Forest Fickling, under the vaguely-pseudonymic name of G.G.Fickling – his wife was Gloria, which may explain the choice. The heroine is a private eye, who follows her father into the profession, after he was killed on the job. These adventures, judging by A Gun for Honey, are rather more hard-boiled, and occasionally risque, than the TV show, though even in the book, the characters never actually seem to do “it”.

This entry starts at a New Year’s Eve party given by rich, somewhat decadent film-maker, Rote Collier, in a coastal village where a number of women have already turned up, smothered to death. Honey is present to keep an eye on Collier’s family, but it isn’t long before his wife ends up a corpse. Honey has to fend her way through a maze of deceit, blackmail, smut-peddling and even more dead bodies, to find out who’s behind it all. There’s a standard pattern to the chapters: she suspects someone, sexual chemistry sizzles, never quite gets consumated, and she finds evidence implicating somebody else. Rinse. Repeat. It’s all done in a fairly boilerplate manner, and you never feel the characters, outside of Honey, are more than animated Clue cards.

Still, have to say, I didn’t spot the final twist, which probably counted as quite outrageous, fifty years ago. Though, if I’m grumbling, the gun mentioned in the title only ever comes into play during the final denouement. There, everything is unveiled at a ferocious gallop, and Honey rides off into the sunset. I imagine such a strong, independent heroine (even one who acts like a cat in heat most of this book) was extremely novel for the time; as such, I guess it deserves respect for that. As a work of literature, however, it’s pretty much forgettably competent. The first book was republished by Overlook Press in 2005 – otherwise, Ebay and used-book stores are your friends…

By: G.G.Fickling
Publisher: Pyramid Books, 1958

Grindhouse

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“Bringing a new meaning to Girls With Guns… “

Grindhouse harkens back to an earlier time, when the only way to see cult or obscure movies was at your local fleabag cinema or drive-in. There was an entire industry of low-budget studios, like AIP, set up to create product for these outlets: knowing they couldn’t hope to compete in the areas of stars or general quality, they resorted instead to the old stand-bys of sex and violence. They flourished, roughly from the sixties to the end of the seventies, but the steady rise of home-entertainment media spelt their death-knell – at least as far as theatrical releases went. However, their films were an influence on many film-makers, and some of them have teamed up to bring you this love-letter to the genre, of the sort probably not seen for a couple of decades.

The structure closely mimics the original double-features, with an opening trailer, Rodriguez’s entry, Planet Terror, three more trailers, and then Tarantino’s film, Death Proof. What you take away from these will largely depend on what you bring: a knowledge of the low-budget horror, action and SF genres will enormously increase your enjoyment here. But, really – can anyone possibly resist the lure of a trailer (directed by Rob Zombie) for a film called Werewolf Women of the S.S.? With Sybil Danning? Udo Kier? And Nicolas Cage playing Fu Manchu? Where do we queue?

Planet Terror is a zombie flick. That’s really about all you need to know – but if you insist: the accidental release of gas from a military base causes the local population to turn into ravenous monsters. It’s up to pissed-off go-go dancer Cherry (McGowan) and her former boyfriend (Freddie Rodriguez) to take care of the issue before the entire world gets infected. The result is a phenomenally-gory homage, to a genre which has undergone something of a renaissance in the past couple of years. It’s clear that Rodriguez the director has a great love for these works, and brings all his favourite moments to his work here.

There’s a fine sense of escalation, from the relatively-subdued opening, through to the insane climax, in which Cherry – now fitted with an automatic weapon in place of a limb which was torn off her during an earlier attack – takes on an entire army of the undead. Ludicrous? Over-the-top? Nonsensical? Hell, yes. Wouldn’t have it any other way. About the only weakness is a tendency to go overboard with the trappings of grindhouse flicks, such as missing reels, scratched film, etc. far beyond the point at which it’s amusing. We get it. I said, we get it. Thank you. Fortunately, the DVD should have the “restored” i.e. un-screwed with version.

Despite McGowan, the second entry is really what pushes this into action-heroine territory. It pits Stuntman Mike (Russell) against three women, who have taken a classic car out for a test-run. Now, the first half establishes that Mike is a total psychopath – basically, he’s a serial killer, who uses his vehicle as a way to murder and get away with it. However, when it comes to his latest victims, he may have bitten off more than he can chew as they include a professional driver (Rosario Dawson) as well as a stuntwoman (Bell), both enjoying a couple of days away from the film on which they’re working.

This section has the usual problem of Tarantino movies: he’s in love with his own dialogue, especially during an immensely-talky first half. And making the problem worse, the words never seem like they’re coming out of the characters’ mouths, but it is all too easy to imagine Quentin Tarantino saying them. Self-indulgent, meaningless drivel, full of pop culture references, he believes will make you think, “How clever!” – unfortunately, the result is closer to “What a poser!” This gets old really quickly, and when things get going in the second half, it’s a blessed relief. If you need to use the bathroom, quite likely in a 195-minute event like this, early on in Death Proof is definitely the time. You won’t be missing anything at all, and I suspect it might have been better if the two directors here had swapped scripts.

To the film’s credit (or, at least Bell’s) when that happens, the results are amazing. There’s a car-chase which is among the most genuinely scary in cinematic history, with Bell, apparently unsecured, sliding around the hood of the car as it’s pursued and shunted by Mike. [Sadly, no pics appear to be available online] Bell is a New Zealand stuntwoman in real-life – she doubled Lucy Lawless in Xena for several series, and also worked with Tarantino on Kill Bill – and that shows, in a sequence which proves that CGI can’t yet reproduce the impact of real metal on real metal. Of course, it also helps that the characters shut the hell up, and stop wittering on about Quentin’s favourite movies.

If the set-up is somewhat contrived, the result, which also shows Mike up as the snivelling bully he is, more than justifies the end, and is a startling endorsement of vigilante girl-power at its most brutal. It’s a shame it took so long to get there, and Planet Terror is definitely the more enjoyable part of the double-bill; however, Zoe Bell has moved from obscurity to center-stage with impressive grace. If she can show acting skill as well (here, she appears largely to be playing herself, to be honest), stardom beckons.

Dir: Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino
Star: Rose McGowan, Freddy Rodriguez, Kurt Russell, Zoe Bell

One for the Money, by Janet Evanovich

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“And it was all going so well, too…”

Former romance writer Evanovich switched genres and hit paydirt immediately with the first in the series, describing the adventures of former Newark lingerie buyer Stephanie Plum. She’s forced, through financial misadventure, to find a new job, and goes for a job filing paperwork for her bail bondsman cousin, but ends up hunting FTA’s (those who Failed To Appear for their court date) instead. She starts at the top, with suspended cop Joe Morelli, who has vanished after being accused of shooting an unarmed man. But as the witnesses to the incident start to die, Plum realises things may not be what they seem. The novice bounty huntress is well out of her depth, not least when she crosses psycho boxer Ramirez – until help comes from an unexpected source…

It’s an immensely readable book, with Plum an engagingly inept heroine. Initially, she truly is a bit crap at bringing in bail-jumpers, and it’s all a lot more plausible than, say, Domino. The subsidiary characters are nicely drawn, and though there is the inevitable unresolved sexual tension, it doesn’t get in the way of the thoroughly entertaining story. Unfortunately, just when it was cruising towards a seal of approval, we get the most embarrassing case of Bond villain-itis I’ve ever read. By that, I mean “Now I have you in my absolute power, 007, let me describe to you every detail of my plan for world domination.” That’s exactly what happens to Plum: the bad guy is pointing a gun at her, and suddenly feels the need to explain the entire plot. It’s eighth-grade writing, and is in staggering contrast to the assured prose which came before.

The series is, at time of writing, up to twelve novels, with a thirteenth due in June. I’ve read reports that later entries lose the plot badly, with silly characters and a slide back towards the pulp romance from which the author original came. I can’t say I’m surprised, having seem a similar decline in the Anita Blake series after the first few volumes. But, on its own, this is a fine piece of entertainment, that really had me turning the pages enthusiastically, and despite the mis-step at the end, I’ll certainly be looking out for the next in the series, Two for the Dough.

By: Janet Evanovich
Publisher: Harper Torch, 1994