Thursday, October 29, 2015

Interview: Ralph L. Angelo Jr.

I recently had the pleasure of interviewing author Ralph L. Angelo Jr.
Ralph is an excellent writer of science fiction, fantasy, and other action-packed genres, a hell of a nice guy, and (we can't underestimate the importance of this) a fan of the New York Yankees. Here are Ralph's answers to some questions about his work, as well as some information about his books, past, present, and future.

Who is Ralph L. Angelo Jr.? Tell us a little about yourself and your life beyond what a reader might learn just by reading your books.

Well, I’m a 56 year old guy whose idea of fun is riding sport and sport touring motorcycles in the warmer weather, and up until this past year skiing all winter. But due to these constant injuries I keep getting skiing every year I may be done with that for good. I have a bad lower back to begin with and last season I crashed badly on my upper back along my shoulder blades. That laid me up for two months before I was back to normal. I play guitar and sing, though the last few years that has been down to karaoke nights and not in any bands. I’m single, never been married and no kids. I owned a business for 15 years prior to all of this.

What inspired you to begin writing, and what's the earliest thing you remember writing? 

I always had an interest in writing dating back to elementary school. I loved to read, and it naturally carried over. The earliest thing I can remember actually putting down on paper was what became the prologue to my ‘Torahg the Warrior’ novel. I actually wrote that scene in mid ‘80’s. It was my attempt at the beginning of a Conan novel, and I just kept it for myself.

When and why did you decide to take writing seriously and pursue it as a profession? 

In the late 90’s to the early 00’s I had been writing and selling articles to a few motorcycle magazines and decided to write a book on Motorcycle safety. That was published a decade ago and is called ‘Help! They’re All Out to Get Me! The Motorcyclists Guide to Surviving the Everyday World’ It was my first book, and while it didn’t sell a ton of copies at first, it left me with the idea that I could do this thing. So I immediately began writing my first novel, ‘Redemption of the Sorcerer-The Crystalon Saga, Book One’ But I lagged on that one. I took my time. I dragged my heels. Flash forward 6 years and I got hurt at work. My back got so bad that I could not continue in the field I was in (I was an appliance repair technician.) and was out on permanent disability. But now I had time to finish my book, which I did. There were a bunch of growing pains associated with that book, but it was nothing that couldn’t be overcome. I think that’s probably the best book I ever wrote, to this day. I wrote 3 more within the next year, including Torahg, the still unpublished sequel to Torahg, and ‘The Cagliostro Chronicles.’

When I think of your work, Ralph, the first thing that comes to my mind is "The Cagliostro Chronicles." Can you tell us a little about how those books came about, what they're about, and what plans you might have for the future of the series?  

The Cagliostro Chronicles is my ode to space opera/sci-fi. Not the technical boring stuff that makes you want to peel your eyes out of your skull but stuff more like Star Wars and Star Trek. It’s action packed, adventurous and generally a lot of fun. It’s my most popular series. It starts in 2089 and goes from there. It begins with a scientist/engineer named Mark Johnson (BTW, the concept of this series was also something I came up with in the mid to late 80’s, especially the opening chapter) who discovers the secret to faster than light travel. Along the way he also discovers that mankind’s progress in space has been stunted by an outside force; an alien civilization that does not want man to leave Earth because they fear us and our potential. So since the early days of the Apollo missions and right through to 2089 they have made sure that there have been disasters that have set man’s quest for the stars back. The first book deals with their first mission out amongst the stars, and how they begin to unravel the conspiracy. It culminates in an intergalactic battle for Earth’s survival.
The second book is two and a half years later on and The Cagliostro and its crew have just discovered an Earth-like world about 4 days distance from Earth at hyper-warp speed. Along the way the ship gets badly damaged in a battle and they end up crash landing on that planet. There they face all sorts of threats including natives and monsters. This culminates in a three way war for that planet. This book also introduces a huge threat to both mankind and their enemies from another dimension.
The third book is set six months after the second and The Cagliostro has been in for refits and upgrades. Its shiny and new again as well as being better than ever. Now they discover that the President wants them to go undercover once again and infiltrate an ancient, long abandoned world with a hidden secret that they must retrieve before their enemies the Agalum do. But the new threat that emerged at the end of the second book is cutting a bloody swath through the galaxies, complicating things on a grand scale.
The fourth book will close the current arc. The fifth book will begin a new series of adventures that will be slightly lighter in tone, at least for a while.

You mentioned before that "Torahg the Warrior" began its existence a long time ago, long before you started your career as a writer. What was it about that concept that stuck with you for so long that it eventually found a place in your professional work?

The opening sequence really hooked me. It was frightening and monstrous and filled with dark magic and evil men looking to overthrow an empire. But most intriguing to me when I wrote it was that one of those evil men is Torahg’s older brother, the King’s other son. This novel is brother Vs. Brother but not just in their present. There’s a twenty year gap that takes place when we first see Torahg, he’s a young, wide eyed young man of eighteen or nineteen. After he escapes his home with the palace guard on his heels the next time we see him he’s thirty eight and no longer so pleasant to be around. He’s been in a forced exile for twenty years with his teacher living under an assumed name. He’s been framed by his brother for their father’s death, even though his brother, Welcomb, is the one who actually killed their father. But events have a way of coming back around, and he ends up in a position to take back his home land of Fairandia, now renamed Blackhorne by his brother to remove all semblance of the land his father ruled so peacefully. Taxes have been increased dreadfully upon the populace and everyone is miserable. King Welcomb has a private army of thugs making sure everyone stays in check as he turned a once wonderful country into a hell for its citizens. And of course the fact that he’s willingly possessed by a demon has something to do with all of this as well. It’s an epic, sprawling tale that may indeed be my favorite creation to this day.

Tell us something about The Crystalon Saga and what plans you have for its future.

Oboy… Crystalon’s story begins in another dimension. A dimension he has ruled for a million years, yes I said a million. He is an immortal sorcerer on a parallel Earth in a parallel dimension. Where the first novel begins he has just been overthrown by an invading force. He’s poisoned and shackled by mystic chains that it takes thirteen sorcerers to maintain, even in his weakened state. He’s incalculably powerful, more like a force of cosmic nature than a man. But his punishment (For ruling with somewhat of an iron fist, though not as harshly as some would make it out to be) is to be banished to a world without magic. A world that looks exactly like the one outside our door. A world where he is completely powerless and destitute. He soon discovers a mystical plot involving soul stealing demons is in place and that consequently this world is not so free of magic as he once believed. But he is the only man on Earth who has a chance of defeating the evil sorcerous forces allied against him. If he does not, two worlds will ultimately fall. His new home and the world of his birth as well. Will he regain his powers in time to save both Earth’s or is it already too late?
The second novel in the Crystalon Saga, ‘My Enemy, Myself’ takes place a few years later and he is firmly entrenched on his new home when he receives a visitor he never expected to see again, one who begs him to return to his old world and help them against a foe that cannot be defeated, one who is mad in every sense of the word. He’s making deals with the devil, literally and is seeking revenge against everyone from his old home. The universe he was originally from; the universe Crystalon now occupies. Once again the master sorcerer must put aside all his concerns and work to save two universes from a foe who is at the very least his equal in power. But how can he defeat an enemy who is alike as the face in the mirror? How can Crystalon defeat ‘My Enemy, Myself’?

Tell us what Hyperforce is about.

Superheroes and their first appearance on an Earth that never had them before. A world that is suddenly changed by the appearance of a young alien prince of extraordinary power who is being hunted by an evil warlord looking to usurp the throne of the world they are both from. They have many adventures within the book, in fact each chapter is written as if it were a monthly superhero comic. There’s even a supersized chapter inside to replicate an annual or king sized issue. Hyperforce is my ode to the great comics of the 70’s to late 90’s. It’s a fun, gigantic adventure.

Who or what is The Grim Spectre?  

The Grim Spectre is my first true pulp novel. It’s set in the 1930’s in a city where everything and everyone is corrupt except for the citizens. Robberies and muggings are commonplace and happen every day. Gangsters and crooked politicians rule the streets with impunity. When a man is beaten nearly to death in an abandoned alleyway his life is saved by a mysterious being, who could be an angel or something far worse, but he doesn’t know. What he does know is that now he has a mission and the ability to complete it. The city of Riverburgh has its champion now, but will the avenger of Riverburgh, The Grim Spectre, be up to the task? It’s a rough and tumble novel filled with fights and gunfire between good and evil for the fate of a small city forty miles north of Manhattan up the Hudson, with a horrific demon-like being as its star.

Having talked about your novels already, can you tell us about the short stories you've had published?

Sure, the funny thing is I have to sit back and actually remember what I had published as shorts. I have one novella out there that is appropriate for this time of year called ‘The Halloween Terror of Weatsboro’ which is a Halloween tale of a community that discovers they have had monsters living in their midst for over a century. At only .99 cents it’s a bargain and a steal! Many are still awaiting publishing, but the ones that worked best for me were the Sinbad tale I did for Airship 27 last year in volume 4 of that series, a story in an anthology I did for Pro Se called ‘Rat-A-Tat-Short Blasts of Pulp.’ And most especially my story in the Destroyer Anthology that came out last Christmas entitled ‘More Blood’ that one was actually nominated for an award last year. Though I didn’t win it, it was still nominated and that worked for me. I also have shorts coming out in a book by Flinch Books, another in a new Pro Se anthology featuring a hidden segment of the musketeers in old France that battled against enemies of a mystic or horrific nature. This one may actually be Lovecraft-ian. I have two stories coming out in anthologies that are being produced for those of us in the community who have been suffering with illnesses. One being handled by Ron Fortier and Airship 27 and another by Van Plexico and White Rocket. Both are benefit books. I believe that is all I have out there right now as far as new or unpublished anthology tales.

What writers do you feel have influenced your work the most?

Easy question, Robert E. Howard, Warren Murphy, Robert Jordan, Lots of comic book guys like Chuck Dixon (Who has crossed over to writing novels and is kicking ass doing it), Roger Stern, Gerry Conway, Roy Thomas, Steve Englehart, Jim Starlin, Walt Simonson and lots of others I can’t bring to mind right now.

Looking at your various published works, I see some science fiction, some fantasy, and even a little horror. What other genres, if any, would you like to try?

Believe it or not, I’m considering trying my hand at an old style mystery book, something like what more acknowledged authors write. I doubt I’ll ever try romance, that’s not in me, as a writer. At this point I’m looking to write something that will be a breakout title for me, that will definitely take me out of my action packed comfort zone.

What is your process for writing like? Do you write detailed plans for your novels, fly by the seat of your pants, or somewhere in between?

No detailed plans at all. I have a few ideas of where to start and go from there. There are times I don’t really know the ending of the book in progress until it appears on the page. The opposite of this is the just finished ‘The Grim Spectre’. I knew the ending well in advance. I didn’t even have to put it down on the computer screen (Notice I did not say ‘paper’?) It was floating around my brain for a long time. It’s been said by many a writer that a book is a definite beginning and an ending and the hardest part is everything in between. Sometimes this is true for me. I put these artificial word counts in place for myself. Usually a minimum of 65K words until I’m satisfied that I’m giving the reader enough for their money. Some of my books are closer to 100K words (The two Crystalon books) others are nearer to the 65K mark, and quite a few are in-between. The original cut of Torahg was 106,000 words. Usually I let the story tell itself and if I have to add some meat and potatoes to it to fill it out I do. There was a late chapter in The Cagliostro Chronicles III where I added this entire side adventure to fill it out. It was several chapters’ worth of material and this one big adventure that had nothing to do with the main storyline, but it’s also one of my favorite parts of the book, if not the favorite.

What is your favorite things about writing? Your least favorite?

Well my favorite is coming up with new ideas for stories and putting them down on the screen, then of course seeing them actually printed. My least favorite is actually getting lost in the story and starting to realize just how little I have written. Then I have to force myself to write more and to a steady schedule, which always gets far easier as I come to the end of a storyline.

Ralph, thanks so much for taking the time to tell readers of this blog about yourself and your books. I look forward to everything you write in the future!

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Follow Ralph on Twitter as @RLAngeloJr

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Watching the Detectives

Detective and mystery fiction has been part of my life for almost as long as I can remember. I recently tallied my 45 published stories according to genre and found that I’ve had more mysteries published than any other type of story. While detective movies and literature have been very important to me, I’m pretty sure it all started with television. After all, movies, until quite recently, were either encountered incidentally when they happened to be shown on TV, or had to be seen in theaters or rented. And books had to be sought out at stores or libraries. But television has a constant presence in the household and my first exposure to detective fiction probably came from me joining my father in watching various reruns from his youth or whatever was running on Mystery! when I was in the age range when being exposed to new ideas had the greatest impact on my developing imagination.
So today I’m endeavoring to choose my ten favorite television depictions of detectives and put them in order from least to favorite. I love all ten of these shows and many more, but I can only choose ten (with one instance of cheating a bit, which you’ll see as you go up the list), so let it be noted that exclusion is not to be seen as disrespect toward any small-screen sleuth who does not appear in the countdown.  
One more thing to note: the fine actors in spots 10 and 9 are at the bottom of the list because their shows are still running and so can’t properly be compared to the other eight, which are completed bodies of work. Perhaps, if I update this list several years from now, the order will be altered in some ways.
So here we go. My ten favorite TV detectives, from 10 to 1.

10. Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock Holmes

 I was prepared to hate Sherlock. When I heard the BBC was doing an updated version of Sherlock Holmes, I was against it. My favorite fictional character belongs in the Victorian and immediately post-Victorian eras. The entire mystique of the canon fits that period so well. The world has changed so much since then and we have so many new methods of crime-solving at our disposal here in the 21st century. I was convinced they wouldn’t get it right. And I was wrong. The essence is there! Holmes, Watson, and the usual cast of characters are all represented in modernized versions and the spirit of Doyle’s work lives on. I’ve enjoyed every episode so far, though some are better than others, and I look forward to the next series.

9. Idris Elba as Luther
 Since 2010, Idris Elba has portrayed Detective Chief Inspector John Luther in 3 series of episodes. Elba’s intense performance has made him one of my favorite current actors and made Luther a TV cop I look forward to seeing in what I hope are many future episodes.

8. Ronald Howard as Sherlock Holmes
In 1954, 39 half-hour episodes of a Sherlock Holmes TV series aired. I call this “Holmes Lite,” as they were short, sweet little mysteries, perfect for quick distractions when one is in the mood for a Holmes fix that’s not too heavy or intense. Simply put, these stories are fun. Howard plays Holmes well, and his co-star, Howard Marion Crawford, plays a Watson who is somewhat of a cross between the brave, able doctor of Doyle’s canon and the comedic sidekick of the Basil Rathbone films.   

7. Robbie Coltrane in Cracker
A detective doesn’t have to be a police officer or private investigator as long as he or she works to get to the bottom of mysteries. Robbie Coltrane gave a great performance as Dr. Edward “Fitz” Fitzgerald, a psychologist who assists the Greater Manchester Police in this 1993-1996 series. An obese, chain-smoking, drinking, gambling, sarcastic, yet brilliant man, Coltrane’s character was a pleasure to watch.    

6. Derek Jacobi as Cadfael
A medieval monk solving mysteries is a wonderful contradiction, as the clergy usually has the job of encouraging faith and belief in things we can’t see or hear, while a good detective must always rely on evidence and facts. This mixture of two opposing ideas is what made Brother Cadfael so interesting. The character originally appeared in stories by Ellis Peters (the nom de plume of Edith Pargeter) and was adapted for TV between 1994 and 1998. 

5. Inspector Morse and his spinoffs
Okay, this is the part where I cheat. The Inspector Morse TV series ran from 1987 to 2000 and starred John Thaw as author Colin Dexter’s opera-loving, crossword-solving police detective. His partner was Detective Sergeant Robbie Lewis, played by Kevin Whately. From 2009 to the present, Lewis, now an inspector, has had his own series, simply called Lewis, in which he is assisted by the young Detective Sergeant James Hathaway (Laurence Fox). In addition to that, there is also another currently running spinoff series, Endeavour (Morse’s rarely mentioned first name), which features Morse as a young detective (played by Shaun Evans) in 1960s Oxford. I enjoy all three series and consider them parts of a whole, so I see no reason not to include them all on this list. 

4. Jack Lord as Steve McGarrett 
Hawaii Five-O had an incredible run from 1968 to 1980, making it (I think, but I’m too lazy to look it up right now, the longest running weekly police drama before Law & Order). It’s been the butt of jokes for years, due to the blindingly garish fashions of the 70s, the catch phrase “Book ‘em, Danno,” which is actually not spoken very often at all in the series, and Jack Lord’s thick, seemingly immovable hair. People can make whatever comments they want, but it’s hard to deny that the show was a huge success, and it’s easy to see why. The stories were always compelling crime dramas with great guest stars, clever mysteries, and good action scenes. Like some of the 60s and 70s’ best shows (like Star Trek and Bonanza) Hawaii Five-O features story styles that could switch episode to episode from drama to semi-comedy to espionage-based noir worthy of the early Bond movies. Jack Lord’s no-nonsense McGarrett was the series’ star and the glue that held the show together. 

3. Jeremy Brett as Sherlock Holmes
Holmes is my favorite fictional character in the entire world. He’s been played by many fine actors on film, many of them quite good. But Jeremy Brett, in his 41 Holmes adaptations, from 1984 to 1994, was the most faithful to the character as created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. These are nearly perfect versions taken directly from the source material. Brett’s performance is magnificent, as are those of his two Watsons, David Burke and Edward Hardwicke. It was when I happened to walk into the living room of the house I grew up in to find my father watching the Holmes episode “The Devil’s Foot” when I was 11 years old, that I became hooked on Holmes and soon sought out the original stories. 27 years later, I’ve had six of my own Holmes stories published, with 2 more on the way, and, I hope, many more yet to be written. I have Jeremy Brett to thank for all that! Many people who know me well might expect Brett’s Holmes to be first on this list, but it’s third, because, as I said a moment ago, Jeremy Brett was, perhaps, the best, but he was not the only great Holmes. The top 2 spots had to go to actors who are now the only men I can accept as the detectives they so brilliantly portrayed.

2. Peter Falk as Lieutenant Columbo
Columbo was a unique character among TV detectives, with his stories being not whodunits, but, as someone once pointed out, how-catch-ems, meaning that we, the viewers, knew from the opening scenes who had committed the murder, and, probably, so did our title character, a disheveled little man who latched onto his suspects like an annoying tick, not letting go until he’d just-one-more-thinged them to the point of gathering enough evidence to put them away. These were brilliant stories starring one of the greatest actors ever to grace the silver or small screens. I probably saw Columbo even earlier than my first exposure to Sherlock Holmes, and I still admire the series and Falk’s work to this day. One of my favorite conversations I’ve ever had involved discussing the brilliance of Pete Falk with Robert Culp, an actor who played a murderer on Columbo no less than 4 times. As far as I’m concerned, Peter Falk was Columbo, and if the occasional rumors of a rebooted, recast version ever turn out to be true, my head may literally explode, so somebody needs to keep a mop close by.

1. David Suchet as Hercule Poirot
How could the first spot on this list go to anyone else? Hercule Poirot is easily my second favorite literary detective, after Holmes, and most adaptations previous to 1989 had been less than faithful to the character Agatha Christie put on paper. David Suchet, over a span of nearly 25 years, starred in TV adaptations of almost every one of Christie’s Poirot novels or short stories, for a total of 70 episodes or TV movies. Suchet meticulously researched the role and perfected it in a way no previous actor had (and, I think, no one else ever will, for perfection cannot be improved). His Poirot is an extraordinary accomplishment, and watching an episode transports the viewer to a different time and place. The glorious opening theme music pulls us in and we’re spellbound until the conclusion of the mystery. I would go so far as to call Suchet’s little Belgian detective the finest adaptation of a literary character I have ever seen. Of course, I also have to mention the superb supporting cast of Hugh Fraser as Captain Arthur Hastings, Philip Jackson as Chief Inspector Japp, and Pauline Moran as Miss Lemon, whose contributions to the stories and interactions with Poirot added to the show's many layers of charm. 

And that's the list. I'd like to extend my thanks to all the actors, writers, directors, and producers of these fine detective shows, as well as the original creators of the characters and the mysteries in which they found themselves entangled.