Tuesday, November 05, 2019

All the Crimes Fit to Print: Crime Fiction- A Reader’s Guide by Barry Forshaw

Readers of Crime Time and various broadsheets will already know that Barry Forshaw is pretty much the go-to person when it comes to all things fictionally criminal. Not to mention that he has long been a prime mover when it comes to promoting a range of crime fiction in the UK. His two volume Encyclopaedia of British Crime Fiction remains a landmark publication, indispensable to anyone interested in the history of the genre. Likewise his handful of other titles, their subjects ranging from Nordic Noir to Italian Cinema. With a keen editorial eye, his reviews are customarily pithy and invariably on the money. His latest contribution, Crime Fiction- A Reader’s Guide might be described as a condensed version of his Encyclopaedia, only cheaper and easier to negotiate. In fact, given its pocketable size and format, it is as comprehensive a reference book and guide to what is purchasable that one is likely to find. 

That is, given the economics of publishing, at least as suggested by the book’s evocative cover, depicting, on the one hand, a well-trodden pulp fiction trope and, on the other, a reminder of crime fiction’s past and how it has changed over the years- becoming more acceptable, literary, blatant, marketable and diverse. These days crime fiction is more profitable than ever. In fact, it’s been at least sixty years since the term pulp fiction could be used to describe even a portion of the genre. This is reflected in the market place itself where, in the intervening decades, the price of a typical paperback has gone from the 2’6 of those orange Penguin crime novels, to 30p for the green Penguins, up to the present when a typical crime paperback costs in excess of £15. To say nothing about the price original pulp paperback crime novels in decent condition. It’s definitely a seller’s market, with crime fiction on display in all parts of the world, and with every country having their own crime writers with their own particular spin on the genre. In his forward, Ian Rankin claims Forshaw’s book “covers crime fiction from every part of the world.”  Well, almost, but the book is undeniably, and perhaps understandably, UK/US-centric, with a nod  to Europe, particularly Scandi-Noir, not withstanding the token Chinese or Latin American writer thrown in for good measure. 

Which shouldn’t be surprising. Adding even more writers, from a greater range of countries to the mix would have only made Forshaw’s book all the bulkier and considerably less easy to negotiate. As for the chapters themselves, they are general enough to include just about any crime novel one can think of, regardless of place, but, at the same time, specific enough to highlight the genre’s touchstones: from the origins of the genre to its Golden Age; from Hardboiled/Pulp fiction to private eyes and cops; from professionals (lawyers, doctors, forensics) to amateur investigators; from  psychological narratives to psychopaths, criminal protagonists and organised crime; from crime and society to espionage; from domestic noir to cosy crime and blockbusters; and from comic crime to historical and foreign crime. Interspersed within which are boxed-in entries on selected topics and authors, from Agatha Christie and to Raymond Chandler, from radio crime fiction to film noir. Each section contains a plethora of books along with Forshaw’s precise and concise comments and synopsises. The book concludes with a series of appendixes, the first of which consists of the author’s favourite Scandinavian and political thrillers. That’s followed by two outside critics, J. Kingston Pierce and Craig Sisteron, who list the authors that, in their opinion, should have been included in Forshaw’s book. It’s not only a nice democratic gesture on the part of the author, but it’s also a fitting way to end what a book that is bound to be at least partly subjective.

Because anyone conversant with the genre will have their own list of omissions and perhaps quibbles with the text. For me, I would have liked Forshaw to have included the likes of Jean-Patrick Manchette, Jerome Charyn, Ross Thomas, K.C. Constantine, Dorothy B. Hughes, Paul Cain, Andrew Coburn, Leigh Brackett, Peter Temple, Bill James, James Curtis, Arthur La Bern, Robert Westerby, Cameron McCabe, Horace McCoy, Gil Brewer, Raoul Whitfield, Frederick Brown, Buzz  Bezzerides, Samuel Fuller, Joe Gores, Lionel White, Harry Whittington, Jim Nisbet, Scott Phillips, Kent Anderson, Stephen Greenleaf, John Franklin Bardin, Dolores Hitchens, Frederic Dard, Tonino Benacquista, Thierry Jonquet, Boris Vian/Vernon Sullivan,  Pieke Biermann,  Massimo Carlotto, Patricia Melo, Ricardo Piglia, Claudia Pineiro, Leonard Padua, Paco Ignacio Taino, and Santiago Gamboa. And, to make it truly international, what about those Tamil pulp writers published by Blaft, or the wonderful Nigerian railway station books, collected in Life Turns Man Up and Down, published by Pantheon? Come to think of it, why not a section on small presses which, free from the economic constraints of corporate publishing, are publishing some of today’s most interesting and edgy crime novels. Or a page on books that address the subject of crime fiction itself? But, then, all of this might have been outside Forshaw’s remit, much less his word count. Because, in the end, Crime Fiction- A Reader’s Guide is what it is, a useful and nearly comprehensive study that deserves a place in the library of all serious readers of crime fiction. 

(This article will also be appearing in Crime Time)

Friday, October 04, 2019

Cracks, Crevices and Small Revolutions: Sarah Jane by James Sallis

A new novel by James Sallis is always cause for celebration.  Sarah Jane is certainly no exception. His latest might be a slightly more subdued effort, but it's no less affecting than any of his past seventeen novels. But what struck me while reading Sarah Jane is the degree to which much of the action, essential or otherwise, takes place off the page. It's like a noir version of Chekhov or something one associates with some French new wave films. Perhaps this is true of past novels, but it's only now that I realised this particular technique. Whether deployed consciously or not, it's an effective technique, humanitarian and democratic in nature. Moreover, it allows the reader to call on his or her imagination, while respecting the motives and inner workings of the characters within the novel. Consequently, Sarah Jane,  a cop with a complicated past, spends her time reacting to events that happen around and away from her, not to mention those events from her past, whether instigated by her or by others. Of course, things happen in the novel, but Sarah Jane is more about she and others react to what happens to them. And that reaction manifests itself in the novel's dialogue and inner thoughts are sometimes tangential and at other times perfectly to the point.

Near the end of the novel, Sarah/Sallis writes: of an admired teacher "who said of words when they played well together: 'There is a small revolution going on in that sentence.'" I wondered while reading this if this Sallis hinting at his game plan. If so, why not?  Because that sentence might well describe what occurs in Sallis's own work, whether regarding his dialogue, description, or narrative drive. Sarah Jane then goes on to comment on how language in all its manifestations, might define the person. Including documents surrounding that person's life.  All of which is dependent on the person reading them. This goes not only for the investigator but for the reader. Likewise, each line of dialogue, image, inner thought, constitutes, in its own way,  a small revolution, one that builds on what has already been written, described or discussed. Documents- a birth certificate, a book, a memoir, an image- that constitute one's life can say everything or nothing, depending on how those documents are interpreted. 

This state of affairs might well be what I have always liked about Sallis's work, but have never realized before. That his work is as cumulative as it is defining. Of the characters in his novels as much as the culture in which those characters exist. and how they reflect the culture in which the reader and writer live. So of course each book builds on the last one, from The Long-Legged Fly to Cripple Creek, Drive/Driven, Wilnot and now Sarah Jane. Each book seems to want to add to that revolution. And before you know it you have a way of thinking and way of regarding the world that is, in its own quiet way, revolutionary.  What's important in Sarah Jane, as in his other novels, is not the plot- pointless to recount and and often difficult to remember- but what exists in the cracks and crevices of the book. Not just how the characters regard one another and themselves, but how they react and what they say to one another.  It's up to the reader to fill in the details, exemplified by Sarah Jane's  first sentence-  "My name is Pretty but I'm not." - and allow things to build from there, one revolution upon another, an on-going process that, through the written word, as well as the cycle of life, death and everything in between, never ends. http://www.facebook.com/facebook-widgets/share.php

Monday, September 23, 2019

On Dangerous Ground: The Reckless Moment (Max Ophuls, 1949), Scarlet Street (Fritz Lang, 1945)

The Reckless Moment (Max Ophuls, 1949)

Perhaps everyone desires something similar. Hiding
home-truths as much as falsehoods. Neither unseen
nor unseeing. A historical reference mainly lost on
the white world, never mind it's derivation. Crossing
a bridge connecting Balboa to another world. Behind
dark glasses. To a sleazy hotel, a gambler and mink-
toting blond, bass propped against the wall, just below
a boxing poster. An interloper, not even a femme fatale,
to confront the creep who's messing with her seventeen
year-old art student daughter. Casually exercising a
droit du seigneur bluntness: as in, how much you willing
to pay to make me go away. Tells the tearaway daughter
he's only into her for the money she can generate. She
lashes out. A reasonable reaction, likewise her desire 
to escape her island of surplus capital. He falls, hits his
head. It's not murder, but it's not bad, more a piece of
messy performance art, left to her mother to curate. So
how does the soft-spoken Irish black-mailer hear about
it? Or did I miss something? Inserting himself into her
life until she can produce the cash. Which requires the
approval of her husband, no more than a moan-and-groan
out-of-towner. “Quite the prisoner, aren’t you?" says
the blackmailer, himself barely in the loop, whether
amongst criminals or old-world revolutionaries. Yet
smart enough to know that on this beach of milk, honey,
and good housekeeping, appearances must be maintained.
She's called Lucia, but he prefers Lucy. It's not love but
it's not bad. Less about the danger of not having a man
around than what life is like in the dark, the past like
falling dust and and how easily things can fall apart.   

Scarlet Street (Fritz Lang, 1945)

For the meek shall inherit clichés, scams and false
modesty. While, in the shop window, democracy is
once again placed on the auction block. As always,
it's about class, selling the dictatorship of taste and
art world pretentiousness to the masses. Easy targets,
if not for the human element, humdrum never more
than skin deep. Sunday painter, Christopher a sitting
duck gabbled by Kitty in her see-through raincoat,
and amuse-bouche approach: "You know those art
galleries on Fifth Avenue? I saw one little picture that
cost fifty-thousand dollars. They call it, uh, 'Seezan'."
Christopher, his invisible sign- "Another sucker born
of middle-class manners"- hanging from his neck,
"You can't put any price on masterpieces like that.
They're worth, well, whatever you can afford to pay
for them. " Kitty: "I bet I saw some of your pictures
there and didn't know it." Christopher: "Oh no. I, uh...
I don't sell my pictures." Kitty: "Well not in New York
you mean…I bet you get as much for your pictures in
France as those Frenchmen get right here in New York.
You're never appreciated in your own country." Less
a social comedy than an ice-pick to the heart. Whether
gallery fascism or a seller's market, the only guarantee
that everyone will get fucked in the process. A scam, somewhere between a stick-up and Say's Law in broad
daylight. His face, her body, wistful window reflections,
pain and punishment for the person he has become.      


Wednesday, September 11, 2019

The Manchette Quotes: from Nada (trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith)

"Four in the morning. The proletariat was sleeping with one eye open in its suburbs; middle managers for their part were sleeping like dumb logs in their luxury co-ops overlooking the Seine. The late-night pizzerias in Saint-Germain-des-Prés were closing up and shooting out languid, ravishing transvestites. Daughters of the well-to-do, stupified by drink and hashish, were getting fucked in Paris's western outskirts and faking orgasms to mask their nausea. Bums were passing around venereal diseases under the bridges. La Coupole had closed, and intellectuals were parting company at the Raspail-Montparnasse intersection and promising to phone one another. At the printing houses the Linotypists were working away. Headlines concerning the killings of the morning before were being composed. Editorials had been delivered with headlines varying according to the opinion of the particular paper: WHY? or BLOOD or HOW FAR WILL IT GO? or VICIOUS CIRCLE or FOOLHARDY JOE BLOW VS. STORM TROOPERS IN PEAK FORM."


"'I made a mistake," he said abruptly. "Leftist terrorism and State terrorism, even if their motivations cannot be compared, are the two jaws of...'

He hesitated.

'...of the same mug's game,' he concluded, and went on right away: 'The regime defends itself, naturally, against terrorism. But the system does not defend itself against it. It encourages it and publicizes it. The desperado is a commodity, an exchange value, a model of behavior like a cop or a female saint. The State's dream is a horrific, triumphant finale to an absolutely general civil war to the death between cohorts of cops and mercenaries on the one hand and nihilists armed groups on the other. This vision is the trap laid for rebels, and I fell into it. And I won't be the last. And that pisses me off in the worst way.'" http://www.facebook.com/facebook-widgets/share.php

Monday, September 09, 2019

Proletarian Roadkill: Colin's Asher's bography of Nelson Algren- Never a Lovely So Real

WITH THE PROLETARIAT, to a large degree, having morphed into today’s precariat, midcentury writers who sought to align themselves with the dispossessed tend to be a forgotten, if not extinct, species. Which is unfortunate because, until the onslaught of McCarthyism, they were a vital force in American cultural life. These days few people read the work of radical authors like Benjamin Appel, Tom Kromer, Meridel Le Sueur, Josephine Herbst, and Mike Gold, all of whom depicted the conditions of those surviving on the margins — indeed, declared their solidarity with those unfortunates, extolling their virtues and idiosyncrasies. Writers who survived that tradition with their proletarian credentials intact were, to a large degree, those — like Jim Thompson and David Goodis — who were able to convey their portrayals of the underclass via hardboiled pulp fiction. After all, they were themselves working writers, laboring in obscurity, grinding out paperback originals to make a living. By contrast, left-leaning authors such as John Dos Passos, James Agee, John Steinbeck, and Richard Wright had literary connections and writing ability that allowed them access to the upper realms of respectability. Rarer still were those writers who found themselves stranded between proletarian fiction and mainstream literature, yet who could nonetheless sidestep the pay-by-the-word pulp market. Notable among such talents was Nelson Algren, who, no matter how celebrated in his day, would eventually pay the price for adhering to that precarious position.

Born in 1909 in Detroit, Algren (née Nelson Ahlgren Abraham) moved with his family at the age of three to Chicago, where he remained for most of his life. Like many of his fellow writers during that era, he was briefly a member of the Communist Party, dividing his time in the 1930s between professional writing and organizing work for the Communist Party–inspired League of American Writers and the John Reed Club (and later, during the New Deal, for the Works Progress Administration’s Federal Writers’ Project). Always a dedicated, if individualistic leftist, he went on to raise funds for the Republican cause in the Spanish Civil War (1936–1939), then, some years later, for Julius and Ethel Rosenberg; not to mention voicing his opposition to creeping conformism (code for McCarthyism), the Vietnam War, and the false promise of consumerism. It was during the Great Depression that Algren, inspired by books like Stephen Crane’s Maggie: A Girl of the Streets (1893) and Aleksandr Kuprin’s brothel-set novel The Pit (Yama, 1915), as well as by witnessing the plight of ordinary people, kicked off his writing career. Like many during that era, he took to the road, riding the rails and hitching rides, ending up in Texas, where he hooked up with some petty criminals and eventually manned a rural gas station. It was at the local teachers’ college that Algren, seeking to hone his literary chops, stole a typewriter, was arrested, found guilty, and given a two-year suspended sentence.

(You can find the remainder of the review at the LARB website) http://www.facebook.com/facebook-widgets/share.php

Sunday, August 18, 2019

On Dangerous Ground: The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946), Pushover (1954)

The Postman Always Rings Twice (Tay Garnett, 1946)

Lana’s lipstick rolls into the future, past 
Garfield, into a land where we forever grow 
bold, then punished for our pains. Where 
luscious legs and white shorts, suggest a 
sleazy tennis queen, rather than a bored hash-
slinger. Where instructions are such that not
even a postman can comprehend. An indelible 
mark in a city where door-bells are essential, but 
ill-used, whether twice, thrice or, if not, Ice. 
Where loose change clinks payment in kind, 
and firewater seeks its own Production Code. 
Chiming noblese oblige: the customary 
murder, a hint of sado-masochism, maladroit 
lawyers and insouciant insurance investigators. 
Living in a less than wholesome world, a sad 
universe ruled by sleight of hand, swerving 
whiffle balls and working stiffs. Where
cynical private replaces that indifferent insurance 
investigator, where Frank and Cora are guilty 
as sin, sentenced to tear each other apart. That's 
the American way, insisting the world be set to 
rights, but not caring about the consequences. 
To counter unfavorable publicity, Lana is 
photographed on the set with two-year-old Cheryl
Twelve years later, the blood seeps from Lana's
big dong gangster-boyfriend, the stains forming 
question marks of suspicion. Laughter at a post-
shoot party Lana presents Garnett with a fur-lined 
jock-strap, while the ambivalent Cain inscribes 
faint praise in a leather-bound copy of his novel: 
"For my dear Lana, thank you for a performance 
even finer than I expected." Though he had never
expected much. Surely, when the doorbell rings, 
hints of honesty disappears through the letter-box; 
with no special delivery, to assuage the weak,
second-class ignorant, or recalcitrant hoi-polloi.

Pushover (Robert Quine, 1954)

You don't have to be a sleaze-bag to carry a
torch for Kim, twenty-five years Fred's junior,
strutting that June-bugged street where you 
live. A cop with a hard-on, so why wouldn't
she keep him on a short lead, playing him for 
far more than he's worth. Anything to off her 
crooked boyfriend, grab the cash and fade like 
bad surf. With the line: “Money isn’t dirty, just 
people.” Yeah, but,  if it isn't dirty, why bother 
to launder it? Reeling him in, the bait and 
switcheroo, forget the dosh, it's really love. 
That might play in Azusa, but it's a sucker-punch 
on the demeaning streets of Burbank, a push-over,
knowing it's only money through which  he can 
possess- I mean, own- her. That story has been 
rehashed so often it might as well arrive with 
its own breakfast menu. Looking up at her, 
the wounded Fred says: “We really didn’t need 
the money, did we?" Kim scoffs, would that be
rhetorical, or you just happy to see me. Stopping 
short of stupidity, not quite laughing, much less
spitting, in his face. A scene straight out of 
The Indiscreet Charms of the Petit-Bourgeoisie. 
But, wait, one mustn't ignore the sub-plot: Dorothy 
Malone, stalked and spied upon by another cop, 
the weird Phil Carey, who works overtime to turn 
Dorothy into a suburban homemaker. No wonder 
it's not to him, but her hostage taker, the wounded 
MacMurray,  to whom she scurries. As though 
Stockholm Syndrome has become a cultural 
necessity. A revealing moment, but no more so than 
Kim’s dress, an ideal commodity for scum-sucking 
purveyors of public decency, or those who seek 
clean surfaces,  in a Pat and Mamie kind of way.