Earl Staggs earned a long list of five star reviews for his novels Memory of a Murder and Justified Action and has twice received a Derringer Award for Best Short Story of the Year. He served as Managing Editor of Futures Mystery Magazine, as President of the Short Mystery Fiction Society, is a contributing blog member of Murderous Musings and Make MineMystery and a frequent speaker at conferences and seminars. Learn more about Earl and his books at his website.
Old Fashioned Action
I grew up on cowboy movies. Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, Hopalong Cassidy, and all the others. As kids, my brothers and I spent all day on Saturday at the local theater. Getting in cost a quarter, a quarter more bought enough candy to snack on for hours, and we’d sit through each movie at least three times. We cheered after every six-gun showdown because our heroes were faster on the draw than the bad guys. We’d cheer during every saloon brawl when an uppercut sent a bad guy crashing through a door or window. And nothing was more exciting than when our hero chased a bad guy on horseback, caught up with him on a hillside, jumped from horse to horse, and the two of them rolled down the hill so they could duke it out in a rough and tumble fistfight.
I never thought about it then, but there was never any blood. No matter how many times a hero delivered the old one-two punch to the bad guy, we never saw a bloody nose or even a black eye. Even after a shootout and the bad guys all went down with a slug from a forty-five, you didn’t see any blood or guts. It was not real violence, but good, clean action. It was fun and exciting to watch.
As I grew older, cowboy movies changed. The heroes had names like John Wayne, Randolph Scott, and Jimmy Stewart and weren’t interchangeable like the original cowboy stars. These guys had different personalities and styles. The movies were more mature and complicated with stories, something I would later learn to call plots. They gave us more about the heroes, where they came from and what they were made of, something I would later think of as depth and characterization. Still, the movies had a lot of the action I loved. Six-gun shootouts, fistfights, rough and tumble saloon brawls. And very little blood.
Then along came movies with tough PI’s named Sam Spade, Philip Marlowe, and Mike Hammer. Actors named Humphrey Bogart, Robert Mitchum, and Alan Ladd still delivered the one-two punch, threw hot lead, and we saw blood oozing from noses and bullet holes. Not too much. It wasn’t until the gangster movies came along that we began to see limbs blown off and innards hanging out. This was realistic violence, not the kind of fun action I enjoyed as a kid.
I missed the old days.
I suppose that’s why, when I started writing mystery stories, I tossed in some action scenes. Not the blood and guts kind, mind you. My action scenes were more along the lines of the old Roy Rogers and John Wayne movies.
In my first published novel, Memory of a Murder, Adam Kingston is chasing the bad guy, Eric Richards, on foot through the streets of Ocean City, a resort town in Maryland:
Adam dug in and ran after him. He'd only gone a few strides before the slap of shoe leather on asphalt was drowned out by war whoops raining down from above. From the balconies of tall wood-frame rooming houses on both sides of the street, clusters of young tank-topped revelers hoisted their drinks and yelled encouragement to both runners.
Halfway down the block, Richards veered out of the street and ran between two houses. Adam reached the narrow opening in time to see him straddling a board fence six feet high at the end of a back yard, then sliding down the other side and out of sight.
Adam ran through the tunnel-like breezeway and across the backyard. He gauged his strides and leaped onto a trashcan by the fence, grabbed the top of the fence with both hands, and vaulted over. He landed in a crouch in a dark alley that ran the length of the block. He looked right, then left. Eric was nowhere in sight.
He swept both ways again. On the left, he saw the back end of a pink minivan parked by the fence. A topless green Jeep sat ten feet up on the right. Eric had to be hiding behind one of them.
Adam stepped cautiously toward the minivan and knew he'd guessed wrong when he was hit from behind. A pair of arms encircled his chest, lifted him nearly off his feet, and shoved him forward, straight at the minivan. He struggled to keep his feet beneath him and managed to plant one foot and twist his body at the last second so that Eric hit the minivan first with a loud grunt and gush of air.
Adam felt the arms around him go limp and threw his left elbow back, striking Eric's midsection. He pivoted and swung his right fist into the side of Eric's face, then stepped back to let the man who'd jumped him crumple to the ground gasping for air.”
In my second novel, a Mystery/Thriller called Justified Action, the action gets more serious at times with a lot of bullets flying and some explosions. Blood is shed, although it doesn’t get gory or gruesome. There’s even a chase, but in cars not on foot or horseback. In the following scene, Tall Chambers, the protagonist, and a fellow op, Ben Goldberg, realize they’re being tailed by bad guys in a gray car:
When houses became scarce and the landscape changed to farmland and pastures on both sides, the gray car sped up and closed the gap. Tall spotted a dense pine forest ahead. When he reached it, he looked for a cutoff road. When one suddenly appeared on the left, partially hidden by rambling brush, he hit his brakes and made a sharp skidding turn into it. He was now on a gravel service road only wide enough for one vehicle with a deep drainage ditch on each side. A thick canopy of pine branches overhead turned the narrow road into a shady tunnel.
When they were a hundred yards in, Ben Goldman looked back. “They’re still with us.”
“What’s the plan?”
“Don’t have one yet.”
Tall increased his speed. He had no idea where the road would lead. After another minute, the road curved to the right. When it straightened again, they were out of the forested area and in a wide grassy clearing. Directly ahead, the road ended at a ten-foot-high chain link fence. Tall braked to a stop in a small gravel parking area just short of the fence and glanced in his rear view mirror. The gray car was fifty yards back and coming fast.
“Come up with a plan yet?” Ben asked.
Tall shifted into reverse. “Yeah. Let’s see what these boys are made of.” He draped his right arm over the seat back, twisted his upper body so he could see out the rear window and pushed the accelerator down hard. The car leapt backward, spewing gravel in every direction.
Ben Goldman raised his gun and racked it. “I love it when you improvise.”
The two cars raced toward each other at high speed, one moving forward, one backward. When the distance between them was down to twenty yards, the front end of the gray car dipped down and the squealing of its brakes rose above the crunching of gravel. The car fishtailed and slid to its right toward the wide drainage ditch alongside the road. Momentum carried it forward until the front end fell sharply downward at the edge of the road and the rear end rose up and over in a flip. The car landed on its top on the loose dirt at the bottom of the ditch, then slid forward ten feet until the rear end imbedded itself in the far bank and stopped, upside down, with its tires still spinning and its engine still racing.
Tall hit his brakes and his car stopped twenty feet beyond the gray one. He released his seat belt, opened his door and yelled, “Go!” He swung out of the car and landed in a crouch with his gun out. He heard Ben moving on the other side of the car toward the rear fender. “Cover me,” he shouted.
The action this time involves four-wheeled vehicles instead of four-legged steeds, but this is a different genre and a different time. The days of two-fisted cowboys on fast horses is gone. Still, I miss the kind of action and excitement I enjoyed back in the day and can’t resist building a similar kind of action into my current stories.
Am I the only one, or are there others who miss those days?
Tall Chambers uses his wits and weapons to stop terrorists before they kill innocent people, but when someone close to him is murdered, he devotes his skills to only one purpose – find the person responsible. His pursuit is more difficult when he learns he is also marked for death. He fights to stay alive long enough to find the killer, even when it means striking a deal with the worst terrorist of them all.