Thursday, May 10, 2018

Some Quick Shots

Too many books, too little time. However, these are among the best that have come my way over the last couple of months:

-Green Sun by Kent Anderson (Mulholland Books). Noir cop adventures unlike any other. Takes up from where Anderson's Night Dogs left off. Which if you  haven't read, you should immediately track down. And if you have read it, you know what you are in store for with Anderson's latest. Vietnam vet Hanson is now perusing the streets of Oakland, wondering, of course, if it's worth it. I imagine that Anderson's books are as close as it gets to telling like it is when it comes to the politics of being a cop.

-South Atlantic Requiem by Edward Wilson (Arcadia Books).  Wilson once again proves himself to be one of the best around at tracking late 20th century UK/US spook connections. His seven novels constitute a virtual history of that period.  His latest, which of course features his favourite MI6 agent William Catesby, concerns the Falklands War. About time that some novelist lifted the lid on that one, with its sordid, Trump-like crimes. And there's no one better suited to the task than Wilson.

Ivory Pearl by Jean-Patrick Manchette (NYRB). Perversely, perhaps, this has long been my favourite Manchette novel, finally available in a superb translation by Donald Nicholson-Smith. Unfortunately, Manchette died before  finishing it. However, his son, Doug Headline, was able to put the finishing touches to it. Manchette believed the polar had hit a deadend, and this was, for him, the future of hardboiled nor.  Which is to say, to open the genre to the ins and outs of global capitalism, and let the bodies fall where they may. Set for the most part in Cuba's Sierra Maestra mountains in the 1950s, around the time of Castro's landing, Ivory Pearl reads like a cross between Ross Thomas and John LeCarré, with, of course,  the political engagement of Manchette, ever the  unreconstructed soixante-huitard, thrown in for good measure.

-Body & Soul by John Harvey (Heinemann). Ex-cop Frank Elder, with whom most  Harvey readers will be familiar, is now on his own, living in Cornwall. His daughter, the victim of a vicious attack in a previous novel, is now scrambling to make a life for herself in London. She lands a job modelling for a highly-rated but personally suspect artist, later found murdered. Not that one has to work hard to suspend one's disbelief, because, as usual, Harvey's characters are believable, his locales evocative, and his humanity crystal clear. Moreover, the portrayal of the thin-skinned but compassionate Elder as he as he negotiates the dark side of the art world and his own demons, is never less than touching.

-The Annotated Big Sleep by Owen Hill, Pamela Jackson and Anthony Rizzuto (Vintage Crime/Black Lizard). A must for any Chandler obsessive.  It also happens to be one of the most entertaining, perhaps funniest, books I've read for a while. Everything you wanted, and maybe didn't want, to know about Chandler, The Big Sleep, and the world around it. Any serious Chandler reader will know some of the information, but what they will probably enjoy best is when the book best ventures off-piste exploring tangentially related bits of information. So pour yourself a gimlet and enjoy The Big Sleep as you never have before.

-I'll Be Gone In the Dark by Michelle McNamara (Faber). Generally, I don't read  much true crime, but McNamara's book is as much about her  obsession with the Golden State Killer who raped and murdered women for more than a decade, as anything else. We now know someone has been arrested for those crimes. One naturally wonders if McNamara's book had anything to do with the suspect's arrest. McNamara, who grew up in the area of Northern California where the crimes took place, fills her book with grisly details, but the most interesting aspect, at least for me, are those parts in which she writes about herself, her background and her obsession with the case. She died before completing her book, but  true crime writer and researcher Paul Haynes teamed up with McNamara's husband Patton Oswalt to add the finishing touches. A fascinating and absorbing investigation, wonderfully written, and, despite its subject, impossible to put down.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Ron Slate on Days of Smoke (from the Los Angeles Review of Books)

WITH THE COLLAPSE of literary writing into popular culture and the smudging of boundaries between genres, the status of noir fiction may seem uncertain. But then, noir has always been a protean category, a shadowy realm for novelists to develop their signature styles and work out their obsessions. So-called mainstream novelists sometimes make forays into the genre, raiding its attributes. When the culture roils with angst (and when doesn’t it?), noir fiction makes a blunt drama from our distress. No one knows the traditions, mutations, and contemporary aspects of noir fiction better than Woody Haut. In lively studies such as Pulp Culture: Hardboiled Fiction and the Cold War (1995) and Neon Noir: Contemporary American Crime Fiction(1999), he has tracked noir from its roots in hardboiled crime stories to the urban narratives of Elmore Leonard, Sara Paretsky, and James Ellroy.
In 2014, Haut produced his first novel, Cry for a Nickel, Die for a Dime. Set in Los Angeles in 1960, as the United States turns the corner toward the Kennedy years, the novel centers around Abe Howard, a freelance photographer whose shots of a murdered jazz musician put him in conflict with the city’s interchangeable criminal and corporate elements. Cry for a Nickel glories in classic noir tropes: it deals with civil disorder and personality conflicts, its clashes are triggered by basic drives, its language sounds as if it were spoken over a tumbler of bourbon, and it thrives on the generation of fear.
Now comes Days of Smoke. The time is June 1968, the place Pasadena. As the action opens, a college-aged woman named Connie Myles observes three men walking into the office of the Pasadena draft board where she works. Mike Howard has arrived to present his petition for classification as a conscientious objector to the Vietnam War. He is accompanied by his father, Abe Howard, who opened a camera shop after a violent ordeal in Cry for a Nickel. Connie thinks of herself as “a kind of secret agent who had successfully infiltrated enemy territory […] she held fast to her guise, doing her job, waiting for her moment.” Meanwhile, Mike “had no intention of going to Vietnam. There was no way he was going to fight in a war he didn’t believe in. Nor did it bother Mike that he was doing his best to finesse the situation; if necessary, scam the draft board into believing his story.” Soon after, Connie finds, or rather, creates her “moment” — she destroys Mike’s file and becomes an updated rendition of a noir femme fatale.
(The remainder of the review can be found at the Los Angeles Review of Books)

Monday, April 09, 2018

The Best-Laid Plans: William Boyle's The Lonely Witness

If you've read William Boyle's Gravesend (my review of which you can find here), you will certainly remember Amy.  In fact, Boyle's latest, The Lonely Witness, begins pretty much  where Gravesend ends. Amy's girlfriend, Alessandra has left Amy and Gravesend where she grew up to pursue an acting career in Los Angeles. Leaving Amy, raised in Queens, on her own, a foreigner in a place in which Alessandra is her only connection. No wonder that wherever Amy looks she is reminded of her girl friend. Though no longer a bar-hopper, Amy's relationship with the world has become, in the intervening time, and, despite her efforts to the contrary, more complicated than ever. To get her life back to basics, Amy has rejoined the church and spends much of her time visiting old people, taking communion to them and, in general, making sure they're okay. One elderly woman she sees complains about the son of a friend who has been visiting her, only to to rummage through her things, as though in search of something to steal. Amy meets him, takes an instant dislike to him, and, wanting to know what he's up to, decides to follow him. While doing so, she witnesses his murder. Moreover, despite the dying man's pleas, she, thinking of what a low-life he is or perhaps of an event that occurred when she was a teenager, does nothing to help him. It's at that point that things, as they say, turn from bad to worse, and Amy's life goes from simply messy to a whole lot messier.

Caught up in her own little world, Amy might have various flaws but she tries to  do her best in a world over which she has no control. And no matter what she does, it only seems to make matters  worse.  But Boyle's novel is not just character-driven, it's also driven by his sense of that part of the world he is writing about. While his portrayal of Amy and various others is invariably convincing, what, for me, works equally well  are those instances in which he  conjures up the place in which she Amy lives. Particularly when Boyle reels off places in a litany of remembrance, the rhythms of which are not only evocative but poetic; like a series of time-lapsed photos of a place that, for better or worse, straining to retain a fractured sense of community:
"Amy watches storefronts zip by through the open window, hoping to avoid any other interaction with the driver. Tile and marble store. Tire shop. Tasty Chicken. Tasty Bagels. Paint store. The Utrecht branch of the library. East Ocean Buffet. Threading salon. Marshall's. New Utrecht Avenue brings the El with it where it intersects Eighty-Sixth Street, Capelli's Funeral Home on the corner. Under the El, red lights flash. Brake lights. Double-parked cars. A woman on a treadmill in the window of a brightly lit 24 Hour Fitness. Duke's Deli. That Polish restaurant. Meats Supreme. Cigar Emporium. A few sushi joints Amy doesn't remember being there before. A Popeyes with Chinese writing on the sign."
The Lonely Witness (pub date May 1st) is a tense, and, at times, darkly funny, thriller. Reminiscent of writers from Daniel Fuchs to George Pelecanos, it's safe to say that if you liked Gravesend, you'll love The Lonely Witness. And if you haven't read Gravesend, you will no doubt  want to do so after reading The Lonely Witness.

Sunday, March 04, 2018

Through a Lens Darkly: Gene Smith's Sink- A Wide-Angle View by Sam Stephenson

Most people have no doubt seen Eugene Smith's incredible photographs. If only because, from the 1950s onwards, his work has made the rounds and then some. More than that, Smith, over the years, has become something of a legendary figure, perhaps even something of an urban legend, known as much for his private recordings, specifically jazz jam sessions held at his Sixth Avenue New York loft as for his photographs. Recordings  that many know about but not all that many have heard. However, by the time Smith had established residence in his  loft and on his way to becoming that eccentric New York figure, he had already secured his reputation as one of Life magazine's preeminent photographers, arguably the creator of the photo-essay, and Magnum member.

I was attracted by Sam Stephenson's  Gene Smith Sink- A Wide-Angle View (Farrar Strauss & Giroux) because I wanted to see what it had to say about those who frequented Smith's Sixth Avenue  loft during fourteen year tenure, from 1957 to 1971. It was during that time that Smith turned the place into something of an open house to musicians, junkies, pimps, prostitutes, fellow photographers,  assistants, and an array of interesting characters, from street people to the likes of Norman Mailer, Robert Frank and Diane Arbus. Musicians like Thelonious Monk, Roland Kirk, Sonny Clark, Chick Corea, Lee Konitz, Freddie Redd, Paul Bley, Zoot Sims, Bill Evans and even Steve Reich used the loft to  practice, jam and hang-out. For some it was a place of refuge, while for others it functioned as little more than a shooting gallery. Perhaps something akin to the set for Jack Gelber's The Connection, but on a grand and more cluttered scale. Most famously, Monk, along with loft resident Hall Overton used the space to rehearse Monk's  famous Town Hall concert. As the various interviews in Stephenson's book aptly illustrate,  Smith,  his tape machines running day and night, was a compulsive, even possessed, collector of stuff, from photographs and photographic equipment to music of all kinds, as well as pre-recorded historical texts, poetry and plays, not to mention ambient sounds consisting of pretty much anything that caught Smith's fancy.

Sonny Clark
Stephenson, with two previous books on Smith under his belt-  Dream Street- W Eugene Smith and the Pittsburgh Project and The Jazz Loft Project- Photographs and Tapes from 821 Sixth Avenue, 1957-1965- here  extends his wide-angle view to those who knew  the  often amphetamine-fuelled Smith, or, if not, those who knew someone who knew Smith.  In fact, Stephenson claims to have spoken to some one thousand individuals over a twenty year period. Of course, a good many of those who hung out at the loft are no longer with us, such as the great jazz pianist Sonny Clark, who spent much of his heroin-filled time  in New York in and around Smith's seedy and cluttered Sixth Avenue residence. For me, the Clark chapter  is particularly welcome since  there's very little  biographical information out there on the pianist (which begs the question regarding why no one has yet written a biography of Clark?). Stephenson, also clearly a Clark fan,  paints a vivid portrait of the musician. Though many others people pop up in the book, for me the chapter on Clark as well as the interview with drummer Ronnie Free, best known for his work with Mose Allison, and the artist Mary Frank, alone make the book worth reading.

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Perhaps the most surprising discovery in the book was Smith's early friendship with film-maker Stan Brakhage, the two having met one another in  Geneva in 1958. A seemingly incongruous friendship given the dispositions and pursuits of both men. But, given their dedication to their respective art forms, one can see why they might be friends. After all, both had a particular attitude regarding  their art, and fought to exert control over their work. Which meant working against the prevailing system. In in Brakhage's case,  the perils and pressure facing independent film-makers, and, for the photo-journalist Smith, fighting  Life magazine's hegemony, even though he had given that publication some of its most memorable work. There is also, of course, a Pittsburgh connection: Brakhage went there to film his Pittsburgh Trilogy (Eyes, Deux Ex, The Act of Seeing With One's Own Eyes), which could be interpreted as something of an homage to Smith, who a decade earlier had travelled to that city to shoot his famous Pittsburgh Project.

Hardly your usual biography, Gene Smith's Sink...surrounds and expands on its subject.   Though Stephenson sometimes lets his interviewees go slightly off-piste, he makes sure they eventually return to the subject at hand.  For me, there was a surprise in every chapter, with  the common denominator being that Smith, no matter how demanding, seems to have affected the life of just about everyone with whom he came in contact.

Smith died in 1978, not yet 60 years old, shortly after the contents of his loft had been transferred to the University of Arizona, where photographs, recorded material, assorted papers, etc., spilled forth from the school's  gymnasium. Not only is Gene Smith's Sink... a biographical testimony to one of the great photographers of the twentieth century, but, painstakingly put together, it stands as a cultural artifact for  anyone interested in photography, music, recorded sound, or New York during a time of great cultural activity.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

I remember therefore I am: Memory by Donald Westlake

I can't believe there are still some readers out there who have never had the pleasure of reading a Donald Westlake novel. A man of multiple pseudonyms- at least seventeen by my count-  Westlake (1933-2008) had a writing career that lasted some fifty years. It's hard to say exactly how many novels he wrote. Most likely over a hundred, while some twenty-five of his novels have been adapted for the screen. Then there are his screenplays, not least of which is his adaptation of Jim Thompson's The Grifters, directed by Stephen Frears in 1990 (not to mention his screenplay for Dick Spottswood's 2005 adaptation of Patricia Highsmith's Ripley Under Ground).

Most hardcore crime readers would no doubt favour Westlake's novels written under the name Richard Stark. For no other reason than those books mark the  essence of modern stripped-down, fast-moving tough-guy crime fiction in the tradition of  Paul Cain and Hammett. I suppose if Westlake is known for one book it would probably be The Hunter, if only  because that's the novel on which John Boorman based his 1967 film Point Blank. As excellent as Boorman's film is, it differs  considerably from the novel.

Then there are all those  Westlake comic crime novels featuring  John Archibald Dortmunder ("My own worst fears when I get up in the morning," said Westlake regarding his creation. "He's everything that can go wrong."). An unlucky criminal genius, Dortmunder first appeared in the 1970 Hot Rock, which began as a Richard Stark novel, but Westlake realised the novel, concerning someone who commits the same crime over and over again,  was moving away from the hardboiled style of the Parker novels. With his eccentric concept of criminality, Dortmunder would go on to feature in more than a dozen novels.

Other than the Stark novels, my personal favourite Westlake books are what I call his "social" novels, like  The Ax, The Hook and his final novel Memory, published posthumously by Hard Case Crime in 2010. Not that other Westlake novels lack a social dimension;  in fact, they are all subtly political regarding the way they expose society's fissures and failures. For instance,  the Stark novels, in which Parker, ever the individualist, battles against organized crime, in other words corporate capitalism.  But, for me, Westlake's "social" novels are more explicit in their critique and commentary, whether concerning, as in The Ax,  someone who finds himself unemployed, and so, to maintain his life style, sets out to murder anyone competing for the job he's after. Or, as in The Hook,  about a successful novelist who has come down with a case of writer's block, so, to once again keep up his life style and help pay off his divorce, hires a hack writer,  to write his next novel, which turns out to be a success. Which means even though the two writers will split the money, the hack writer, as part of the deal, and in what could be viewed as an updating of Highsmith's Strangers On a Train, has to the other man's divorce-seeking wife.

Likewise,  Westlake's final and posthumously published  (Hard Case Crime) novel, Memory, which I only came across recently. It's a novel full of surprises in which Westlake moves from  the social to the margins of philosophical speculation, as he examines the relationship between memory and identity. Writer Luc Sante has called this novel "hardboiled Kafka," and he's not far off the mark. Not without humour and never stretching credulity beyond breaking point, Memory recalls one of Westlake's earliest (technically his second novel, if one discounts earlier soft-core porn efforts), Killy, about a couple union organizers called into  a company town, only to be implicated in murder, although Memory is a more mature and well-rounded novel.  And, as usual, Westlake rarely wastes a word.

It's a novel centered on Paul Cole, a New York actor in a traveling  theater group working in a middle-American small town. There he has a one-night stand with a woman whose husband discovers them together and hits Paul on the head with a chair- "What a cliché," acknowledges Paul-  rendering him unconscious. He awakes in a hospital with amnesia. The doctors assure that his condition is temporary. However, the authorities make it clear that someone with such loose morals is not welcome in their town, so accompany him to the bus station where Paul gets a ticket as far as  his money will take him. Not to New York but to another small town where he finds work in a tannery. He more or less settles into life there, has friends, including  a girlfriend, but, though he doesn't realize why, he knows he must return to New York. It's only when he finally arrives there that his real troubles begin.

I can't think of many novels that examine so closely  the relationship between identity and memory, as well as its various implications. After all, if  one's memory is wiped out, where does that leave the entire nature vs nurture debate?  And what remains of the person? What is the person other than his memories? And if one's circumstances dictate, to some extent,  one's personality,  can one, should amnesia strike (that Paul has partial amnesia only complicates matters), simply start over?  Longer than the usual Westlake/Stark novel, Memory might also be Westlake's most literary effort. "Literary" in the sense of mainstream fiction. Which isn't to say other Westlake novels are not literary; in fact, they are deceptively so, even if they are left to define  their own particular literariness. Moreover, Memory might also be Westlake's most personal novel, as it delves into a subject befitting someone moving into the last years of his life.

I admit that  I'm no expert when it comes to Westlake's fiction, but I can  say that  I've appreciated everything  I've ever read by him. And, if nothing else, Memory seems to be a fitting end to a long and perhaps under-appreciated career.  If you haven't read Westlake, Memory is as good a place as any to start. And if you have read him, you won't want to miss this novel. Certainly, if you are interested in Westlake, you might want to check out Scott Bradfield's recent article in the LA Review of Books.  Then there's a comprehensive look at Westlake's writing career by the excellent pianist and noir aficionado Ethan Iverson. And for ephemera, there's Westlake's essential Getaway Car, not to mention the official Donald Westlake website, complete with bibliography, interviews, multimedia, etc..

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

The Noir Graphic Novel: Alison Gaylin and Megan Abbott's Normandy Gold

A not-so-guilty pleasure over the past year or so has been my discovery- I know, some will say what took you so long- of noir graphic novels. Easy to read, engaging, and an ideal medium for those interested in seeking out that intersection where noir fiction and film meet.  And these days there's no shortage of them out there. Of course,  I have my favourites. At the top of the list is still  the four  Parker books by Darwyn Cooke- Slayground, The Outfit, The Hunter, The Score (IDW Publications). Though that's not surprising since those Westlake/Stark novels on which they're based happen to be amongst my favourites as well. Then there's Graham Chafee's To Have and To Hold (Fantagraphics), as well as the series by Brubaker and Phillips's Fade Out (Image), and The Graphic Canon of Crime & Mystery (Seven Stories), a comprehensive anthology put together by Russ Kick, featuring an assortment of artists.

I can add to that list the recent Normandy Gold (Hard Case Crime/Titan), a  collaborative effort by novelists, Allison Gaylin and Megan Abbott, with artwork by Steve Scott, Lovern Kindzierski and Rodney Ramos. Out in April- until then you can read most of it in instalments- Normandy Gold might not be as visually arresting and innovative as some of the above, at least when  it comes to framing and editing, but whatever it might lack  in that department, it makes up for in  narrative drive, made all the more effective by the use of what amounts to a voice-over that works contrapuntally to the story-line.

Normandy Gold (is she Jewish or is her surname simply  a reference to her obvious bling?) is an independent, long-legged eye-stopper of a woman. Not only tough as nails, she does little if anything to make herself likeable. Her sole  concern is to find her sister's killer, and to mete out whatever rough justice might be necessary. At the same time, her permanent rage and self-destructive streak leads her to some dark and dangerous situations. It's no coincidence that Normandy reminds the reader as someone like Westlake/Stark's Parker. With a series of 1970s films in mind, not just Point Blank but the Parallax View and the Conversation in mind, one isn't surprised to find lines ranging from "Nobody's innocent here" to "What if we're not real? What if well just characters on a TV show?"

Moreover, Normandy Gold is a throwback to an era in which porn- hard-core, soft-core and anything in-between- seemed to be  entering mainstream, pre-AIDS, culture.  In that sense, one could view Normandy Gold as an off-shoot of David Simon's HBO series The Deuce, to which Abbott was a major contributor. But since I haven't seen The Deuce, I'm unable to say how deep that connection runs or even if it really exists. One obvious difference is that Normandy Gold is clearly aimed at young women in search of a raunchy, kick-ass female protagonist. Not much precedent for that other than in various various underground comics, with a nod of course to their predecessors in the late 1940s and early 1950s, the sort that came under attack by those obsessed with commies using the medium to corrupt  the youth of America (Anyone interested in what might be the origins of the genre might seek out the opening chapter on Dick Tracy in critic Donald Phelps's excellent Reading the Funnies).

Of course, Normandy Gold isn't  the only noir bande desinee in Hard Case Crime/Titan's locker. They've also recently published Peepland by hard- boilers Christa Faust and Gary Phillips, an incongruous but effective pairing, with excellent artwork by Andrea Camerini. Then there's the even more visually arresting Matz/Walter Hill collaboration Triggerman and The Assignment with art work by Jef, as well as Max Allan Collins and Szymon Kudranski's Quarry's War. All of them subversive in their own right.

And all illustrative of just effective the graphic novel can be when it comes to visualising a genre already reliant on a sharp camera-eye, minimal exposition and sparse dialogue. Add to that concerns about texture, imagery, editing and story-line, and the result if perhaps the ultimate visualisation, not to mention democratisation, of the genre. All of which allows the reader to  glide through its pages, moving from image to dialogue to image in a roller coaster ride down an assortment of thoroughfares formerly the province of pure text or the screen.