Thursday, December 26, 2013

Purgatory by Ken Bruen

When compiling the list of  favourite crime novels of 2013 there were some glaring omissions. No mention, for instance, of the latest by George Pelecanos,  Walter Mosley, Scott Phillips or  Reed Farrel Coleman. My reason for not including a number of books was simple enough: I not yet read them  (blame the publishers for not sending copies). Also, no mention of  Jean-Claude Izzo's magnificent Marseilles Trilogy- Total Chaos, Chourmo and Solea- probably because  I'd read all three years ago. And no Gone Girl. But wasn't that one published in 2012? On the other hand, it was a list of my favourite books, not a list of the best books of 2013.

Had I read it a few weeks earlier, I would certainly have included Ken Bruen's Purgatory, the most recent in his Jack Taylor series. For me, it came as a pleasant surprise, mainly because I've never been able to work my way through an entire Bruen novel. Which is ironic given his style- short sentences and paragraphs, sometimes more like free verse than prose. On the other hand, I don't hold the view of a pundit-friend who maintains Bruen's novels are more akin to comic books, that he writes for people who don't like to read, that he over-relies on Irish stereotypes, and throws in an excessive amount of many cultural references- songs, quotes, movies, t.v. programs- leaving it to the reader to work out what they stand for.

Well,  that's a bit unfair. After all, I've got nothing against comic books or, for that matter, novels that are easy to read. Nor do I have anything against cultural signifiers- though I admit Bruen does tend to over do it- so long as I like or can comprehend what they signify, and it's not simply a matter of name-dropping or product placement.  And even the most casual reader would have to admit that Bruen has some important things to say about contemporary Ireland, if not the world in general.

Purgatory- which  I guess is the state in which most of us live- might be easy to read, but it's also very funny, with more than its share of serious observations and, as one would expect, dark moments.  Having said that, it could be that I enjoyed the novel because it's the first by Bruen  I've read since watching the Jack Taylor series on TV earlier this year. It was only while doing so that  I realised how good Bruen's dialogue can often be, with some great one-liners and pithy observations about Catholicism and the Celtic Tiger. Maybe it's simply that Bruen is better visualised than read, or that he should be read as though visualised. I was reminded  of Billy Wilder's comment to James M. Cain to explain why he might not be the right person to pen the screenplay for Double Indemnity: "Jim, that dialogue of yours is to the eye." To which Cain responded that he knew it was to the eye, but he could also write for the ear. Wilder obviously didn't think so.  But what I think Purgatory illustrates is that Bruen can write for both the eye and the ear. Okay, it doesn't offer much in the way of suspense- most readers will know  who the killer is quite early on. Not that it matters, because  Jack Taylor novels are really about... well, Jack Taylor. A consummate outsider with a cranky disposition, now wrecked and ruined by drink, drugs, work, his age, and demands made on him by the state and world in general, yet with enough humanity and wit to still do what he thinks is right. Now that I've revised my opinion of Bruen, I'm going to have go back to those earlier Jack Taylor novels and see what they have to offer.

Sunday, December 08, 2013

Ten Favorite Crime Novels of 2013

(in no particular order)

-Ask Not by Max Allan Collins (Forge)

-Under the Eye of God by Jerome Charyn (Mysterious Press)

-Black Wings Has My Angel by Elliot Chaze (reissue, Stark House)

-Snitch World by Jim Nisbet (PM/The Green Arcade)

-Others of My Kind by James Sallis (No Exit)

-The Maid's Version by Daniel Woodrell (Sceptre)

-Three Steps to Hell by Arnold Hano (reissue, Stark House)

-Dead Lions by Mick Herron (Soho Press)

-Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives, anthology, ed. Sarah Weinman (Penguin)

--Laidlaw by William McIlvanney (reissue, Cannongate)

Bubbling Under:

-Grind Joint by Dana King (Stark House)

-Hammett Unwritten by Owen Fitzstephen/Gordon McAlpine (Seventh Street)

-Dark Times In the City by Gene Kerrigan (Europa)

-The Red Road by Denise Mina (Orion)

-Strange Loyalties by William McIlvanney (reissue, Canongate)

-Papers of Tony Veitch by William McIlvanney (reissue, Canongate)

For a full annotated version of the above list, see my article at the L.A. Review of Books.

Sunday, December 01, 2013

Ask Not by Max Allan Collins

Conspiracies and paranoia are, of course, the essence of noir fiction. And Max Collins, a throwback to the days when the likes of Harry Whittington and Gil Brewer churned out novels for paperback companies at a super-human pace, is well aware of that fact. Since 20th century America is infested with such conspiracies and paranoia, Collins has had no problem finding the appropriate subject matter. Having said that, these days conspiracies are a dime a dozen- from 9-11 to Obama’s secret agenda. Even so, present day paranoia seems to at least in part have its origins in the Kennedy assassination in Dallss, November 22nd, 1963. Ask Not is the latest instalment in what Collins calls the “Nathan Heller memoirs,” which began in 1983 with his True Detective and represent some eight years of American history, from prohibition, Al Capone, Frank Nitti, the origins of Las Vegas, the Lindberg kidnapping, and Huey Long to Rosewell, the Black Dahlia, the death of Marilyn Monroe, and the death of John F. Kennedys. Some eighty years of American history, or at any rate, a secret history, all fodder for Heller’s investigative eye. Collins’ last three books- By By, Baby, about the death of Monroe; Target Lancer, about a failed assassination attempt on JFK in Chicago just weeks before the real thing, and involving the same characters, and now Ask Not, which moves into post-assassination territory. Here Heller investigates the numerous unexplained deaths- whether “suicides” or outright murder- focusing, for the most part, on noted columnist and TV celeb Dorothy Kilgallen, (here called Flo Kilgore), who at the time had been  looking into the assassination, and whose death remains suspicious. 

Collins has definitely done his research on this one, enabling him to bring an array of facts to life, albeit with a dash of novelist’s license.  As he admits, he has long been interested in the subject and has read all the relevant material. Though it appears the book mostly relies on Douglass’ excellent JFK and the Unspeakable. But Heller has also poured through numerous fringe books, watched the relevant films and visited the various websites. He’s certainly no nutter, but he's also no conspiracy-denier.  The problem here is how to interject a fictional Nathan Heller into this historical occurrence. Collins does this by allowing Heller to take on the guise and findings of real life investigators, while intervening in particular places, such as the death of alleged LBJ henchman Mac Wallace, an instance where the mystery remains unsolved.

Yes, Collins’ book does cover the same ground as fiction writers Ellroy and DeLillo. But Ask Not is unlike either of their books (Collins is said to purposely avoid reading Ellroy for just that reason). For one thing it sticks as close to the facts as possible, or at least to the facts according to Collins’ research. The result is like a pulp version of the events, without Ellroy’s obsessional, high-octane prose, and DeLillo’s literary contextualisation. It’s simply a different take, and isn’t necessarily a bad thing, though Collins’ narrative seems somewhat thin in comparison.  But then that’s Collins’ shtick. He prefers to simply state his case and move on. After all, this guy produces a lot of books, including the graphic novel Road to Perdition. Consequently, the book floats on a cushion of historical fact, sometimes feeling as much like reportage as fiction. Having said, and despite its thin and occasionally clumsy narrative, I rate it as one of the year’s best crime novels if only because it’s actually about something, serves a function, and is, in its own way, an important book.

It should be said that one need not have read the previous two books in the trilogy to appreciate this one (perhaps the operative question should then be ask not what the novel can do for you but what you can do for the novel). Though, as I’ve said elsewhere you have to work hard to suspend your disbelief when you read these books simply because Heller, as the “p.i. to the stars,” has done it all, knows everyone worth knowing and some who aren’t, and has intervened in at least fifteen crucial events in twentieth century American history. Call me cynical, but that’s stretching credulity to breaking point. But, okay, I’ll go along with it. Particularly since Nathan is getting on in years, and his his days are obviously numbered. Still, if you want to learn about what happened in and around those events in Dallas, you could do worse than read Ask Not.  As for where Collins goes next with his Heller memoirs, he strongly hints that it might well be the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Heller’s pal and former boss Robert Kennedy. Then there’s always Watergate. After that things get murky, while noir becomes more an excuse, or at any rate a commodity, than a manifestation. Anyway, by then Heller most certainly will be living with the worms. Though these books are easy to criticise, I, for one, am eagerly awaiting the next instalment. 

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

A Colossal Wreck- A Road Trip Through Political Scandal, Corruption and American Culture by Alexander Cockburn

It's a romantic image: flitting across America in a vintage gas guzzler, sticking to the back roads, taking the pulse of the nation, jotting it all down, sending off dispatches, in an attempt to stir  things up as much as possible. Alexander Cockburn's A Colossal Wreck is not so much Kerouac's On the Road or Dan J. Marlowe's Name of the Game Is Death as some mutant artifact created by crossing by H.L. Mencken and Edward Abbey, with a soupçon of Hunter Thompson, not to mention  the author's father- once the scourge of everything provincial and conservative in Britain- Claude Cockburn. In other words, Alexander Cockburn was, until his untimely demise, part of a long line of  journalists unashamedly radical, eccentric, opinionated and invariably entertaining.

I began reading Cockburn in the 1980s, when he was excoriating Reagan and his minion. His articles were a necessary tonic for that toxic decade. Cockburn went on to flay subsequent administrations with contributions to  periodicals ranging from the Nation, Esquire, Harpers, Village Voice, to his local Anderson Valley Advertiser,  his on-line Counterpunch, and, surprisingly, the "paleocon" Chronicles Magazine. The latter a reminder that Cockburn, ever the iconoclast, could be as critical of liberals and  progressives, including, heaven forbid, socialist senator, and progressive favourite, Bernie Sanders, as he was of the right.

This, Cockburn's final book, could be his best. It's nothing more than a journal, which begins in 1995 at the end of Clinton's first term, and ends in the summer of 2012, four months before  Obama's re-election. The individual entries are, for the most part, under two pages, with some notable exceptions, such as  his excoriation of Rupert Murdoch; a play in which fellow Brit, and militant atheist/war-apologist Christopher Hitchens meets Henry Kissinger in heaven; an entry on his father, regarding Oxford types, spies and the Spanish Civil War.  Describing himself as "Marx-ish," AC's  renegade leftist perspective can also be painfully prescient, whether on the financial crisis, or the entry, dated  9-12-01, in which he notes the imminent threat to civil liberties posed by the previous day's attack. While his initial Hitchens slap-down comes some years before the latter became the neo-cons' poster-boy for cross-perspective war-mongering, when, during the those crashingly tedious dog-days of Monica-gate, he snitched, just like his idol George Orwell had done, on his friend, the Clinton insider Sidney Blumenthal. Moreover,  Cockburn, unlike many, had  Obama clocked from the beginning, describing him, after his famous "race speech," as "a master at drowning the floundering swimmer he purports to rescue, while earning credit for extending a manly hand in human solidarity...reminiscent of Alexander Pope's eighteenth-century lines about Joseph Addison: Damn with faint praise, assent with civil leer/ And without sneering, teach the rest to sneer."

If I have any criticism of Cockburn, it's his occasional reliance on  gossip. It's the pundit's  equivalent of an "unnamed source." Like the guy  who schleps Hillary around telling him that he overheard  her saying something nasty about a homeless person. On the other hand, Cockburn makes a cogent case for gossip- in this case, "outing"- early on in the book: "Yet even in the counterculture, or at the level of the off-beat and unofficial, gossip always has the twin function of being liberating- letting the sunlight in- and repressive, in the sense of exposing the personal and the private, naming names and hurting people. Gossip represents visible fault lines at the social surface, reflecting subterranean, gradual shifts in our social attitudes. Although the liberating and repressive functions are both at work, given the structure of media ownership and control, the repressive function is usually dominant." 

Ever the contrarian, Cockburn, with his elegant prose and perspective, can never can be accused of reaching for the lowest common denominator. Particularly enjoyable are entries on contemporary buzz-words on their way to the tumbril (a cart used during the French revolution to haul away the dead), overseen by the infamous, if dubious, Fouquier-Tinville. Words and phrases such as  "iconic", "the new normal", "a tsunami of..." Coming across as a politicised version of Private Eye's "Colemanballs," Cockburn prefaces these entries with a reference to Marcuse regarding the Pentagon giving up on verbs because they believe them to be "unreliable and probably subversive. They talked too much, gave too much away," substituting "clotted groups of nouns" in their place. Though maybe Cockburn sometimes strains just a little too hard to sound like a modern version of Wyndham Lewis's  Enemy, someone unafraid of offending, unable to not  tell the truth as he saw it, for whom speaking truth to power might be applied if that term had any meaning and wasn't  destined for aforementioned tumbril. Or, for that matter, if author had ever displayed any interest in that particular process.  Cockburn's final entry is dated  July 13th, 2012, about why, even though it would be more equitable, a return to the draft is not about to happen in the U.S.. Cockburn would die  eight days later in a German hospital. Without so much as a mumbling word about his illness.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Others of My Kind by James Sallis

This could be James Sallis's oddest novel. At the same time, it could also be one of his best. Odd, not  because the narrative voice belongs to Jenny Rowan, a woman who, as a child, was abducted and kept prisoner for a several years. Finally, she escapes only to spend several years in a shopping mall some twenty miles from Harpers Ferry, living off whatever food and clothing punters discard. No, the novel's oddness has less to do with  those who inhabit it than with the manner in which the narrative moves, which at times is oblique enough to border on the surreal. Normally one thinks of the surreal in terms of imagery- here the image of Jenny as a young girl being kept in a box under her captor's bed- comes close. But Sallis's short novel approaches that category through its structure, coming across like the literary equivalent of a game of exquisite corpse, in which one body part is overlaid onto another; though, in this case, with characters and plot bouncing off one another,  it's more a matter of placing narratives next to each other, to see if and how they fit.  Like a narrative equivalent to poet Robert Duncan's concept of tone-leading.

As we've come to expect from Sallis, Others of My Kind is inhabited by vulnerable yet resilient people, capable of doing surprising things. Indeed, what matters is how Jenny responds to the twists and turns of the plot that has become her life. Found by a kind security guard, she's placed in the  child-care system until, at age sixteen, she gains her autonomy.  Not surprisingly, her life is anything but  straightforward. Likewise, her feelings regarding her abductor. Employed as a news and documentary editor at a TV station, she's contacted by a detective who asks if  she'd  assist him in a case regarding another young girl who'd been  abducted and sexually abused. Jenny visits and befriends the young woman. Though Jenny has carved out a life for herself, she can't help but be a victim of circumstances. In this near-future world- familiar yet skewered-  there's an even greater degree of political turmoil than now. Everything is in flux, no more so for someone with Jenny's history. About survival and how one plays the cards one's been dealt, Others of My Kind is a long way from the Sallis's Lew Griffin novels. But, on the other hand, maybe not. After all, they're part of the same world. Not a crime novel as such, except in the largest sense of the term.  Going from the ordinary to the extraordinary, from darkness to light, Others of My Kind is as moving a novel as anything Sallis has written. And however odd the structure, the parts  have a surprising coherence, equal to the whole; in fact, are crucial to its existence.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Sounds Like London- 100 Years of Black Music in the Capital by Lloyd Bradley

As the opening pages of Lloyd Bradley's book attest, black music has long been a mainstay of British culture, no more so than in the capital itself. West Indians, Africans and exiled black Americans, have for many years been making what has become the soundtrack to the city, often in cross-cultural circumstances. When I arrived in the early 1970s, ska, American soul, South African jazz  (the Blue Notes, Brotherhood of Sound), then reggae and West African-based music  were the sounds I heard.  But black music, as Bradley points out, is constantly evolving, with some forms falling out of fashion, often caused by the dictates of the market, for instance the creation and perpetuation of  the term "world music," or political factors, such as the demise of the Greater London Council, which promoted black music as part of their inclusive policies.

As the author of Bass Culture, Bradley is well-positioned to explore this vast  subject. It's not a bad attempt, though it has some drawbacks. For one thing, to do justice to the subject would take a book twice as long. I suppose that's part of the problem. Bradley, who attempts to cover the music from sometime around 1919 to the present, breezes through the early years, name-checking the likes of  jazzers and calypsonians like "Snakehips" Johnson, Rudolph Dunbar, Freddy Grant, Sam Manning, all of whom were heard in the capital long before the great Lord Kitchener arrived on the SS Windrush. Moreover, I would maintain that  the first couple chapters, like the rest of the book, alongside recordings of the music under discussion, in this case  CD anthologies like Topic Records' Black British Jazz, or Honest Jon's various volumes of London Is the Place For Me. For a more detailed account of the African diaspora's contribution to early British jazz, one could do worse than have a look at  Andy Simon's lengthy on-line account, Black British Swing, published in 2012.

In any case, Bradley, emphasising the relationship between history and the music, relies on some fairly solid informants. In the first two chapters, it's the legendary pianist Russell Henderson and his 1950s cohort, the steel pan virtuoso Sterling Betancourt. It's the informants that allow Bradley to delve into the music, the record labels and distributors active during the 1950s. The third chapter centres on South African jazz and is built around interviews with drummer Louis Moholo, Hazel Miller (wife of  bassist Harry Miller) and formidable musician and composer Mike Westbrook. Here Bradley outlines the impact that  the Blue Notes/Brotherhood of Breath had on the London music scene in the mid-1960s. The fourth chapter covers West African music in the capital, from Ambrose Campbell to Osibisa, from the viewpoint of Osibisa leader Teddy Osei, highlighting th importance of Sterns from its origins as an electrical supply shop to major record store and label, as well as the African Centre  in Covent Garden, which became a popular venue for West African music. The fifth chapter, entitled Bass Lines, Brass Sections and All Things Equals, includes interviews with the visionary Eddy Grant, who, amongst other things, fronted the 1970s group, The Equals, and maintained a recording studio in Stamford Hill, as well as the  the veteran singer from Carriacou, Root Jackson, who achieved cult status in the 1970s with the funk/soul outfit FBI, and who still can be heard gigging around London. But it's the following chapter on the creation and success of  Lover's Rock- The Whole World Loves a Lovers- that I found the most interesting. Lovers Rock was never a genre that appealed to me when it appeared in the 1970s. However, it was not only  a London phenomenon but, according to Bradley,  a reaction to hardcore roots reggae, which tended to marginalise young West Indian women. What began in London soon became popular in Jamaica. In examining the cultural importance of Lovers Rock, Bradley touches on the roots of London reggae, the record labels, distributors, producers, sound systems and DJs. For this he relies on the renown bassist, producer and mix master Dennis Bovell, who recalls that competitions would be held, with the winner recording a single (without pay). It served the purpose getting young women back onto the dance floor and created enough product for Bovell's company to be taken seriously.

Unfortunately, for me, Bradley's book becomes less interesting from this point on, with chapters on BritFunk, recent sound systems, pirate stations and music in the digital age. Yet I still  learned a lot  from these chapters. Call me naive, but I had no idea that during the 1980s clubs had a quota for blacks at the door, even when black bands were playing. In the end, the book points out  that black music has been a music of migrants, one that mixes countries of origin and musical styles with relative abandon. For instance, someone like Ambrose Campbell could move from jazz to calypso to West African music. Likewise, Teddy Osei. To this day London black music, though no longer the province of migrants as such, remains cross-racial, rebellious, and often  cutting-edge.

However, there are problems with the book. For instance, someone should have told the author that most readers don't really care what football club he supports, that it has nothing to do with the book's subject matter. He also has an annoying habit of referring to interviewees by their first name even though it's sometimes been pages since he's last quoted them. Then there are self-conscious asides (no point in mentioning you are not related to someone simply you share a surname) and a deadline journalism  style that does the subject no favours. Minor criticisms, but a good editor should have been on top of that kind of thing. Though the most humorous, if not ludicrous, example of editorial slackness crops up when  Bradley attempts to name-check Airto Moreira, whose name comes out in the text as Ayrton Moreira- clearly a spellcheck chapeau to Peter Ayrton, the senior editor and  founder of the book's publisher, Serpent's Tail.

And maybe my memory is faulty, but I'm sure Bradley gets it slightly wrong when talking about record shops in the 1970s and early 1980s. Dobells on Charing Cross Road closed in 1980, but Bradley seems to be saying that it existed concurrently with Ray's on Shaftsbury Avenue, which wasn't the case. Though he could have been referring to an earlier period  when Ray's was Collet's on New Oxford Street, then Charing Cross Road. And why no  mention of Honest Jon's, whose Soho shop specialised in reggae, or the shop in Camden Town where could always flip through a rack of very cheap African records. And what about Daddy Cool in Soho?  Also, the book could have been improved by including a list of recordings, if only to make it easier for the reader to track down and listen to the music mentioned in the text. And what about a map so those unfamiliar with London could get a sense of how the music scene over the years shifted around the capital? In the end, with a little more research, more attention to detail- the opening chapter deserves a book on its own- and a more attentive editor, this could have been a much better book. While the definitive book on black music in London has yet to be written, Sounds Like London will do for starters.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Bleeding Edge by Thomas Pynchon

Just like everyone seems to know where they were when JFK was killed or when the Twin Towers went down,  Pynchonites can usually recall  their first encounter with the man's writing.  For me, it was sitting in my Yellow Cab at the San Francisco airport at three a.m, reading The Crying of Lot 49,  hoping no one would ask for a ride back to the city. Reading Pynchon at an airport in the middle of the night seemed, at the time, more than fitting. Ironically, Bleeding Edge, an incendiary recollection rather than a prescient bombshell, turns  "where were you when..." on its head, portraying New Yorkers- from the manic, obsessive and greedy to the politically radical or absurd- in the days leading to and just after 9-11.

Centering almost entirely on Maxine, a discredited fraud investigator and Jewish flaneur,  Bleeding Edge depicts  America at a tipping point. The dot com bubble has burst, Bush and Cheney have only recently begun their onslaught, and the culture as a whole is rapidly moving off the edge. In that sense, it's a snapshot of a particular time and place, and of a condition from which we've yet to fully emerge. It's also an homage to the Jewish New York novel- perhaps the last of its kind. Even if Bleeding Edge isn't  as prescient as V, Gravity's Rainbow and the Crying of Lot 49, a line could still be drawn from Crying of Lot 49  to Bleeding Edge and it would make perfect sense, but only if  Pynchon hadn't written those other, later novels, which range from the mediocre  (Vineland, Inherent Vices) to the ingenious (Mason & Dixon) to the  impressive but unreadable (Against the Day). Something of a throwback, yet  a thoroughly welcome one, replete with the author's early trademarks: that smart and biting humour, a plethora of warning signs, riffs, and pop culture references, and an emphasis on  social control, synchronicity, and paranoia ("the garlic in life's kitchen, right, you can never have too much of it."), all chaotically wrapped in Marx brothers urban hipsterisms which tend to highlight that which separates Freedonia with the Land of the Free.

As Gramsci once said, with the old world dying, and new yet to be born, a variety of morbid symptoms appear in the interregnum. Whether boom and bust, crash and burn or shock and awe. And, as Bleeding Edge illustrates, perhaps  cyberspace is the most morbid of them all. Yet as that symptom expands so do the fissures and possibilities, though not all necessarily for the better. For the power of capital to adapt or reinvent itself remains.

"DeepArcher also has developers after it. Whatever migratory visitors are still down there trusting in its inviolability will some morning all too soon be rudely surprised by the whispering descent of corporate Web crawlers itching to index and corrupt another patch of sanctuary for their own far-from-selfless ends."

Reading Bleeding Edge in conjunction with Edward Snowden's revelations only gives that quote, and the book, added meaning. And those various Gramscian mutations could have otherwise gone undetected, at least to those old-school enough to appreciate literature and linearity. Not surprisingly, Bleeding Edge is as much a black hole as a narrative- characters come and go, some are lost and others found, while linearity, though it exists, is given a typically rough work-out. Still, despite the cartoon cut-outs, the circumlocutions and great American shit-storm, the novel manages to hang together, as does its critique. Moving through generations, Pynchon's novel  really does end up bleeding at its edges. With an array of characters navigating  the city, the emphasis, from pre-9-11 to post-9-11, gradually shifts from the street to the computer screen. Yet Pynchon's characters, whether on the street or screen, remain recognisable, whether by the reader or by Maxine. After all, what is fiction other than a form of virtual reality. Significantly, the novel ends with the next turn of the wheel and what remains after the wreckage.

As far as I'm concerned, Pynchon's latest is essential reading and maybe the first real novel of the post-9/11 era, one in which you might might meet yourself or some doppelganger from Pynchon's past.  Noir?  Could be.  Or simply a dystopia in which  that light at the end of the tunnel grows dimmer as wealth becomes more concentrated and technological advances become more enticing. After all, Bleeding Edge takes place is a city that never sleeps, played by a character actor familiar but beyond identification. Which is why Pynchon opens his novel with a quote from the great Donald Westlake: "New York as a character in a mystery would not be the detective, would not be the murderer. It would be the enigmatic suspect who knows the real story but isn't going to tell." Which is the point.  Who will tell?  Indeed, who is capable of telling? Bleeding Edge might as close to that telling as we're going to get.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives- Stories From the Trailblazers of Domestic Suspense, edited by Sarah Weinman

For me, one of the cornerstones of noir, and perhaps its most subversive element, has always been its investigation and critique of the nuclear family and middle-class suburban life. What goes on behind those closed doors and lace curtains is, as far as I'm concerned,  far scarier than any number of serial killers or psychopathic cops. Just think of McGivern's The Big Heat, Dorothy B. Hughes'  In a Lonely Place and  Leigh Brackett's A Tiger Amongt Us. Given their emphasis on domestic angst, it's no coincidence that film noir during its classic period was referred to as crime melodrama, and sometimes categorised as films for women. Naturally, a number of those films were based on stories written by women; after all, who better to describe the politics and paranoia of domestic life.

Some of those authors are included in Weinman's excellent and welcome anthology, while others  in Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives simply wrote novels and contributed stories to the likes of Ellery Queen between the 1940s and the 1980s. Weinman seeks to revive this cross-section of banished noiristas. Her anthology is interesting not only because it highlights such "lost" writing, but, as Weinman points out, these writers dissected society from a female perspective more often than not with a  female protagonist, making them  precursors to  the likes of  Gillian Flynn, Megan Abbott, Attica Lock, and Sarah Gran, whose work is amongst the most interesting crime fiction being produced today.  Of course, that might be down to the fact that  a certain type of  male crime writing, burdened by the cult of masculinity, the myth of the lone hero and its lopsided libertarian ethos, has arrived at a dead end. Likewise, the Chandleresque private eye. These days it's  become harder than ever to make those  tropes work. That's not to say that there aren't exceptions to that rule. But, as I suggested years ago in Neon Noir, a great deal of the crime fiction, particularly during the 1980s, could be said to have been a male response to feminism as well as an extension of Vietnam war literature, both of which carried a limited sell-by date. Clearly times have changed.

What one gets treated to in Troubled Daughters... are not only stories by the better known- Patricia Highsmith, Dorothy B. Hughes, Shirley Jackson and Margaret Millar  (her husband, Ross Macdonald, also wrote about domestic situations, but from a more distant perspective)- but by the less well known but equally formidable Helen Nielsen, Vera Caspary, Charlotte Armstrong and Elizabeth Sanxay Holding (a Chandler favourite). However, for me, the great joy was discovering the likes of Nedra Tyre, Barbara Callahan, Joyce Harrington, and Ceila Fremlin. Many of these writers, regardless of the quality or importance of their work, have been ignored by critics, Anthony Boucher not withstanding. But then the quality of criticism when it comes to crime and noir fiction has always been somewhat strained. As for the stories themselves, they are uniformly excellent, dealing not only with the paranoia of suburban life, but poverty, escape, identity, trauma and loss. And, of course, there's no shortage of crimes. My one quibble would be where are the likes of Mary Holland, Craig Rice, Delores Hitchens and Leigh Brackett? But, who knows, maybe there's a second volume  in the pipeline. I hope so, this even though I generally abhor anthologies. In the meantime, we owe Sarah a debt for "rediscovering" these writers and putting them in the context of their, and our, time and place.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

The Maid's Version by Daniel Woodrell

Daniel Woodrell, about whom I've written several times (for example, here and here), never ceases to surprise me. My first surprise came when, after his series of excellent Bayou crime novels, he produced, seemingly from nowhere, the incredible Civil War novel, Woe to Live On. Then he switched gears again, with  modern-day Ozark narratives like Tomato Red, Give Us a Kiss, and The Death of Sweet Mister, which seemed to reach a fruition in  the evocative Winter's Bone.

But, for me, The Maid's Version is Woodrell most surprising turn to date. It too is set in the Ozarks, and is every bit as noir-infested as his previous books. For me, the real surprise here is the writing itself, which at times seems to approach the lyricism of Faulkner. Then there's the book's scope, which, like a noir version of Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio, takes in an entire community. With its subtle shifts in voice and time, Woodrell is able to depict the rifts of a small entire town torn apart by a dance-hall fire that kills some forty people.

"The explosion happened within a shout and surely those in the house must have heard everything on that bright evening, the couples arriving, strolling arm in arm or as foursomes, the excited laughter, the cooed words, the stolen kisses..., all carrying loudly on that blossom-scented night between the wars, here in the town this was then of lulled hearts and distracted spirits."

 And how's this for timeless writing:

"Trains have haunted the nights in West Table since 1883 and disrupt sleep and taunt those awakened. The trains beating pass toward the fabled beyond, the sound of each wheel-thump singing. You're going nowhere, you're going nowhere, and these wheels are, they are, they are going far from where you lie listening in your smallness and will still lie small at dawn after they are gone from hearing, rolling on, singing along twin rails over the next hill and down and up over the next onward to those milk-and-honey environs where motion pictures happen for real and history is made and large dashing lives you won't lead or even witness are lived."

Essentially, The Maid's Version is a simple story. It's narrator, situated in the present, sets out to discover who might have been  responsible for the fire.  In doing so, he uncovers the usual, as well as some unusual, suspects- big city mobsters,  gypsies, a hellfire preacher, or someone else altogether.  As a by-product of his investigation he also discovers a great deal about the community in general and his family in particular. With the main action taking place in the midst of the Depression, this is a town divided between those  too important to fail, and those so unimportant that they must struggle not to fail, which are represented by two families- Alma's and the family for whom  she initially works. And it's Alma, the maid and the narrator's grandmother, on whom the story rests. As though Woodrell is saying that such workers are, in the end, the keepers of the culture, burdened with essential information, both useful and inflammatory. Yet Alma has to be discrete, something that's not easy or, given her circumstances and her more reckless sister, possible without suffering the consequences. Interestingly, I can't recall any mention  that Alma is anything but a poor farm girl, leaving readers to question their own assumptions regarding race, class and domestic servitude.  

Woodrell's novel might have the reach of an epic, but it has the compression of a short story. Of course, it's self-conscious, necessarily so; after all, the narrative voice is that of a young man fighting to find a way to tell the story. And by the time of its final telling, he has become relatively well-versed in the ways of the world, aware of what has been lost, whether through war, fire, technology or historical amnesia. All of which makes The Maid's Version light years from those early Bayou novels and a major step beyond the likes of  Tomato Red and even Winter's Bone. At the same time, The Maid's Version manages to retain the humanity of the latter and the toughness of the former. The Maid's Version is not only unlike anything Woodrell has previously written, it's unlike anything you are likely to read this year.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Killer Apps, Westerns, Pinkertons, Hammett's Missing Years, and Bodies In Your Bed

Snitch World by Jim Nisbet (PM Press). Another example of absurdist noir from one its foremost practitioners. This is, in some ways, a throwback to Nisbet's earlier work, with an added dose of San Francisco psychogeography thrown in for good measure. But Snitch World is also an homage to blue collar San Francisco, or at least those  on the margins who can still remember it. A kind of  last stand against killer apps, with survival techniques, be they drugs, drink, crime, wit or public disorder. With its barroom scenes and taxi cab rides, this is Nisbet at his most painfully humorous. Could there be, as SW's Klinger might wonder, an app for this kind of writing? I doubt it.

Hollywood Westerns by Robert B. Pippin (Yale University). After reading his book on film noir, my review of which can be found here, I was expecting great things from Hollywood Westerns and American Myth. The book concentrates on Howard Hawkes' Red River, and John Ford's The Searchers and Who Shot Liberty Valance. So it's somewhat limited in scope and perhaps slightly disappointing. Nevertheless, Pippin draws a great deal from the myths those films represent, relating it to the trajectory of the US. In fact, there's as much, if not more, packed in these 155 pages then in a book like  Slotkin's mammoth Gunfighter Nation. Anyone who loves westerns will certainly want to have a look at this one.   

Western Crime Fiction Goes East: The Russian Pinkerton Craze 1907-1934 by Boris Dralyuk (Brill). A fascinating subject: the popularity and social meaning of Pinkerton, Holmes, and Nick Carter stories in Russia prior to and just after the revolution. Published in pulp formats, they represented a Manichean universe that, even though they came from the West, fit into both the old order, already in turmoil, and into the new command society overseen by Bukharin and, citing Marx's love of crime fiction, his demand for "red Pinkerton" stories. It turns out that a number of Russia's top writers- Esenin, Blok, etc.- dabbled in the Pinkerton genre. Dralyuk compares the publications to dime pulp novels and comic books in the U.S.. Likewise, the role of such fiction was similarly ambiguous: was it subverting the culture, upholding its values, or doing both at the same time. The book is fascinating when it comes to Russian reading habits, the  role of parody, wrestling, and the kinoroman- not dissimilar from the original Serie Noire ethos. Overpriced, so, unless you're part of the 1%, order it at your local library.

Hammett Unwritten by Owen Fitzstephen, with Notes and Afterword by Gordon McAlpine (Seventh Street Books). An ingenious little book. Fitzstephen is both the name of the author and the name of  the mastermind writer and Hammett doppelganger in Dain Curse. It's a novel that purports, tongue only half in cheek, to explain Hammett's two decade long writer's block.  Reminiscent of Dominic Stansberry's Manifesto For the Dead and Ariel S. Winter's Police at the Funeral, but even more reliant on biographical detail and used to a greater effect. In doing so, Fitzstephen/McAlpine  highlights crucial moments- based on fact as well as fiction- in Hammett's life, all of them revolving around something close to the Maltese Falcon. Incredibly, those disparate moments are pulled together to make a compelling narrative. But why no mention of Hammett's unfinished Tulip?

Stiffed by Rob Kitchin (Snubnose Press). From another small press churning out novels that are often more interesting than those produced by the majors with their conglomerate concerns. Kitchin's book is a hilarious and frightening Westlakesque tale about keeping one's friends,  getting rid of unwanted corpses and how to deal with the subsequent fall-out. Because waking at 5 a.m with a hard-on and a corpse in your bed might not be the best way to start the day. Uneven at times, with occasional repetitions, implausibilities, and mid-Atlantic perplexities, but, in all, thoroughly entertaining and not without a smidgen of social value.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Garlic, Mint & Sweet Basil- Essays on Marseilles, Mediterranean Cuisine and Noir Fiction by Jean-Claude Izzo.

"In the beginning is the book. And that moment in which Cain kills his brother Abel.  In the blood of this fratricide, the Mediterranean gives us the first noir novel."

 When it comes to Euro-Noir, I reserve a special place for the work of Jean-Claude Izzo. He's not only a soulful writer, both honest and perceptive, but I actually learned French from painstakingly reading Chourmo, Total Chaos, Solea, three novels that feature Izzo's alter-ego protagonist Fabio Montale. Followed by his two other novels  Lost Sailors and Sun For the Dying (all translated and published by Europa) and the stories in Vivre Fatigue. That was back in the mid-1990s. By that time, I'd had a few years of classroom French, but I didn't know much about the language at street level. Particularly as its spoken in the Midi. Not that I actually learned vernacular French as such, because few if any outsiders are able to accomplish that. But from Izzo's books I was able to get an inkling of it. What's more, I began to gain an appreciation and knowledge of French politics, particularly in that region, with its mix of cultures, particularly when it comes to Arab and gypsy cultures. Reading Izzo's novels in French was a slow process, and no doubt meant some of the nuances embedded in those narratives and his characters were lost on me. Nevertheless, the meaning, politics and atmosphere of those books were clear. And the struggle was well worth it, causing me to fall in love with Izzo's characters and the city as he describes. But to this day I've avoided reading Izzo's novels in translation. It's simply a matter of not wanting to let go of that feeling and that discovery.

So Garlic, Mint  & Sweet Basil is the first Izzo book I've read in translation, ably done by Howard Curtis. A relatively short book- just over a  hundred pages- it's comprised of short essays- most no more than three pages long, mostly about Marseilles, a place, according to Izzo, that has long-welcomed immigrants and outsiders. A city situated literally and figuratively on the edge of Europe, looking out as it does on the Mediterranean and North Africa in particular. With its cultural mix, class consciousness and encroaching corporatisation, it's a perfect city for a certain type of noir sensibility.

No doubt about it, Izzo, like his protagonist Fabio Montale, feels that he has less in common with French culture than with the Mediterranean mix encompassing his city. So not only do we get essays on Marseilles culture, but on the origins of Mediterranean noir as well as a short story featuring Fabio. Part Italian, part Spanish, Izzo definitely knew his noir fiction, no doubt having read more than his fare share of  Serie Noire and Rivage novels. So it's not surprising that he places James M. Cain on a par with  Camus and Conrad.

These are all lyrical pieces that allow Izzo to speak  from the heart about  the state of his beloved city, from its cuisine to how its being affected by private capital, multinationals, the IMF, oligarchs, plutocrats and kleptocrats. As Izzo says, "The annual world income of transnational criminal organizations is in the region of a thousand billion dollars, a figure equivalent to the combined gross national product of those countries categorized as low-income." But Izzo was never one to wallow in despair, but saw Marseilles, with its cultural mix, as Europe's last hope. This is an evocative and touching book- there's even a short section listing Montale's favorite places in Marseilles, his favorite books and music- that read like a series of love letters. Moreover, it comes with a wonderful introduction by one of my favorite Italian crime writers, Massimo Carlotto (his books, like Poisonville, which I reviewed here, are also published by Europa) in which he compares Izzo to the other great French polar writer Jean-Patrick Manchette:

"But compared with Manchette, who does not believe in direct political action inasmuch as he believes it is ineffective and doomed to failure, and who limits himself to using noir as an instrument with which to read reality, Izzo goes further. His use of the noir genre is not limited simply to description but penetrates deep into the heart of the incongruities, leaving room for sociological reflection and for a return to his generation's collective memory, and above all, gives sense to the present day." 

Novelist, essayist, poet, activist, Izzo died aged 55 in 2000.  I wish his life and this book had been twice as long.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

The Asphalt Jungle

The Asphalt Jungle (John 
Huston, 1950)

Mix a criminal mastermind, tough-guys, 
and double-crossing suicide. Hardboil to 
urban decay. Greasy Emmerich swindling 
hooligan-employees. Soft-boiled Marilyn 
knowing she’ll soon have it all. But, 
Sterling, keep your eyes on the recipe. 
Farm-hands have problems of their own. 
Down Mexico way, Maddow typed while Huston 
strutted. Which begs the question: is this 
the state of things or capitalism on its 
uppers? Goutez-vous. Can crime exist in a 
culture based on theft? Poor Dix, dying 
alongside a disinterested horse, who, unlike 
Mr Ed, or drugged mule Frances, hasn’t 
sufficient chops to tell it like it is. 

Friday, April 19, 2013

Memories of a Not-So Shy Pornographer: Samuel Roth- Infamous Modernist

Written by Jay Gertzman, author of Bootleggers and Smuthounds- 1920-40: The Trade in Erotica, as well as an excellent essay on David Goodis, Infamous Modernist is the story of poet, novelist, pamphleteer, magazine editor and outlaw publisher Samuel Roth. But it's also the story of an era that stretches back to the early days of the 20th century, when the lower East Side of New York was a haven for Jewish immigrants- poets, Yiddish actors, trade unionists, journalists, with more than its fare share of anarchists, socialists and Marxists. Over the years that world has been documented by such disparate writers as Irving Howe, Luc Sante and Ed Sanders. But, to my knowledge, Roth has so far escaped scrutiny. 

From Gertzman's handsome but somewhat pricey volume we learn that the Galician-born Roth was more than a marginal figure. Emigrating to New York at the end of the nineteenth century, Roth was heralded as a promising young poet, and, in 1920, opened a bookstore that would become a meeting place for writers. In the ensuing years, Roth would be instrumental in fighting the existing censorship laws, paving the way for books like Burrough's Naked Lunch, Nabokov's Lolita and Ginsberg's Howl. Of course, this came at a cost. For his efforts, Roth would spend some nine years in prison, first in 1928, for distributing obscene material through interstate commerce. His final last stretch- over three years- began in 1958. A self-publicist, provocateur and literary hustler, he published two volumes of particular notoriety: Nietzsche's "memoir," My Sister and I, about the philosopher's incestuous relationship with his sibling, which might have been written by the philosopher, Roth, or someone else altogether, if not any combination thereof. The other volume was penned by Roth himself, the inflammatory Jews Must Live: : An Account of the Persecution of the World By Israel on all the Frontiers of Civilization, which would be taken up by the Nazis and still referred to in white-supremacist circles ("There is not single instance when the Jews have not deserved the bitter fruit of the fury of their persecutors...We come to the nations pretending to escape persecution, we are the most deadly persecutors in all the wretched annals of man."). Roth, in the absence of international copyright agreements, also produced unauthorised versions of books like Ulysses, Lady Chatterley's Lover and Harris's My Life and Loves. In doing so, he not only made such classics available, but inadvertently addressed issues regarding the ownership of literature and book-as-commodity. As well as being found guilty of distributing pornography through the US mail (obscene material falling outside copyright legislation), Roth  incurred the wrath of Walter Winchell (probably in response to Roth publishing The Secret Life of Walter Winchell) and New York D.A. Frank Hogan,  while a Senate committee would condemn him for inciting juvenile delinquency by targeting adolescents for the erotica.    

Scrupulously researched, including valuable information from Roth's daughter Adelaide Kugel (often entertaining, as in the story of  the woman walks into her father's bookstore and says in a Yiddish accent, "I want sex." Sam replies, you've come to the right place. All these books are about sex."  To which the woman answers, "Not books. Sex. Sex Fifth Avenue."), Gertzman makes an excellent case for giving Roth his due. With his numerous publishing house and book clubs, Roth epitomised the motto "publish and be damned." With the proliferation of porn on the internet and the sexualization of the culture, Roth's story, however tragic- his last prison sentence in Lewisburg was served alongside fellow inmate Wilhelm Reich- might seem quaint. However, through the 1950s, such activity was deemed highly subversive, even part of the communist arsenal. Which is ironic considering Roth's anti-communism and his occasional willingness to work for the state. In Gertzman's hands, Roth's story, depicting a world long gone, continues to resonate, even cited as  "a wall-eyed loser" in Michael Chabon's prize-winning Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay.     

On a personal note, my father used to tell me about hearing Roth's cohort, the notorious Maxwell Bodenheim, read his poetry. Probably traveling down from Harlem to Roth's bookstore, though it could be that he heard Bodenheim in Chicago where he worked alongside Bodenheim's friend Ben Hecht. In any case,  Roth would publish Bodenheim's My Life and Loves in Greenwich Village, though it turns out Bodenheim was not the sole author of that volume. But, then, that  was par for Roth's course. Likewise, it was common  for Roth to insert himself into such texts. And sure enough, while perusing my Belmont edition of My Life and Loves..., I noticed the penultimate chapter  entitled  "public bohemian number one," which concerns none other than Samuel Roth. While the final chapter, on Bodenheim's last days, was written by S.R., presumably Samuel Roth. 

As for Roth's noir credentials, what could possibly be more noir  than the sleazy world of underground publishing and book-selling, even more so when pursuing free speech, whether in the guise of erotica, porn life or high-class literati like Celine, Henry Miller and Joyce. And to add to his noir credentials, Roth distributed remaindered copies of Gresham's Nightmare Alley in 1947, a book cited in the case, Roth vs Goldman. Moreover, among Roth's ghost-writer of erotica, one of the most adept was his daughter-in-law Peggy Roth who, as Margaret Gruen, and before she was blacklisted, received a story credit for Ida Lupino's 1948 film noir Road House, and contributed to the screenplay for Michael Curtiz's 1945 Mildred Pierce. This is a book overflowing with such information. Not  only a literary con-man, extremist and free-speech advocate, Roth was probably, to usurp James Brown's title, the hardest working man in publishing.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

True Noir: James Douglass on JFK's Assassination

It seems the truth, if this is the truth- and I've no reason to think it's not- about JFK's assassination goes far beyond the noir musings of novelists like Ellroy and DeLillo.  In fact, Douglass' book is probably as noir as true crime gets. I have to admit, I've  never been one to declaim JFK as a man of peace. Nor did I  believe he was on the verge of withdrawing from Vietnam. At the same time, I've always considered the assassination a watershed in American culture. It was also an essential element in  the creation of neo-noir fiction that appeared during and in the aftermath of the Vietnam war (which I discuss in my books Pulp Culture and Neon Noir). At the very least it  helped promote the nation's obsession with conspiracies regarding the government, and the national security state.  But Douglass' book prompted me, albeit some six years after its publication, to reassess JFK's assassination and the circumstances surrounding it.

Even though I'd never considered Oswald the lone shooter,  but most likely part of a right-wing conspiracy involving the CIA and organised crime, I had no idea the extent of that conspiracy and subsequent cover-up, the reasons behind it, or JFK's evolving post-missile crisis politics. This even though I'd once been an avid reader of JFK assassination books by the likes of  Mark Lane and Jim Garrison. But the scrupulously documented JFK and the Unspeakable brings all that past research together, and much more,   including further information regarding the national security state's attempt to maintain the cold war, invade Cuba, launch a preemptive strike against the USSR and prolong the war  in Vietnam. Against that, Douglass maintains that JFK had decided to dismantle the CIA and, with his test ban treaty, work with Khrushchev to end the cold war. That being the case, Douglass, a Catholic theologian and peace activist, insists that Kennedy was a threat to the military industrial complex- which Eisenhower had warned about only a couple years earlier- the CIA- about which Truman, even though he created it, had reservations- and the continuation of the cold war. And so had to be taken out of the picture.  

This was a conspiracy both complex and paper-thin instigated, according to Douglass, by the likes of CIA head Allen Dulles, veteran spook-poet James Jesus Angleton, and perhaps Henry Cabot Lodge, who came from a family bitterly opposed to the Kennedy's. Unfortunately,  JFK made the mistake of appointing Lodge ambassador to Vietnam, only for Lodge to subvert every attempt JFK made to wind-down US presence in the region. Though  LBJ  refused to scapegoat the USSR for the assassination, which could have turned the cold war into a hot war,  he did little  to confront the military-industrial complex regarding the assassination, their cold war perspective, or the country's presence in southeast Asia. No hagiography, Douglass doesn't gloss over JFK's faults, but conducts a thorough investigation of the era and  events culminating in the most famous cover-up in modern history which Douglass, quoting Thomas Merton, categorises as the Unspeakable-  "the void that contradicts everything that is spoken even before the words are said.; the void that gets into the language of public and official declarations at the very moment when they are pronounced, and makes them ring dead with the hollowness of the abyss." If you're going to read one book on JFK's assassination, or, for that matter, one true crime book, this is the one you should go for.  

Some miscellaneous afterthoughts:

- I was surprised at just  how close the US was to a military coup during  the Cuban missile crisis. However, it wouldn't  be an overstatement to say that JFK's assassination was, in fact, a military coup. Unfortunately,  LBJ never sought to question the national security state, the military industrial complex, or US presence in Vietnam. But, as Douglass points out, though LBJ belonged to a different party, he had always had a good working relationship with Lodge.

- In the less than three years JFK  had to deal with  the Bay of Pigs, the missile crisis, the Berlin Wall, Laos, Vietnam, and Indonesia, any of which, if mishandled, could easily have resulted in a nuclear war.

- While living in  Mexico City in 1965, I was told by another American that Oswald had been seen at the Russian embassy in that city.  If the likes of young Americans living in Mexico such as myself  knew about his presence in the city, you can bet that CIA wanted such information disseminated, and so add to the evidence that  Oswald had a pretext- his hatred of America- to kill the president. Of course, we now know there was more than one Oswald, that the real Oswald most likely never visited Mexico City.

- The post-assassination fear  that the CIA controlled  the government has been represented in various  films (Manchurian Candidate, Parallax View, etc.), and any number of spy and crime novels. In many ways it's trope that has outlived its usefulness.  Which doesn't mean it wasn't true, at least until the Church hearings, only that most  accepted it as fact. But today's nemesis is Wall Street and global capitalism, linked as they are to the military-industrial complex, which has grown out of proportion thanks to America's particular brand of military Keynesianism. When it comes to those in control, it's hardly the CIA, but the oligarchs and plutocrats, while their War on Terror has curtailed the rights of those at home and abroad, turning the CIA into a surveillance and killing machine, sub-contracting more than ever. A scenario that goes far beyond what the national security state sought during JFK's time.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Neo-Pulp Pronzini

Though I glossed over it when writing Pulp Culture or Neon Noir, I've never really given Bill Pronzini's work the attention it obviously deserves. This even though he's been writing for over half a century, and remains so highly regarded. But unfortunately he's certainly not the only hardboiled writer I've never found the time to read sufficiently. And to be honest, it was really the evocative covers- particularly Femme- illustrated by Glen Orbik and designed by Gail Cross, that, in this instance, that renewed my interest.  I know, Bo Didley aside, one isn't meant to judge a book by its cover and all that, but in this case I did and I have no regrets for having done so. Because Pronzini, with his Nameless Detective, has to be one of the finest  practitioners of neo-noir fiction around. He's old school enough to recall the likes of Ross Macdonald and new school enough to be of interest to those who like their writers to comment on contemporary concerns. Moreover, the idea of a Nameless Detective, who by now has apparently appeared in more than thirty books, continues to be an intriguing and provocative notion.  The detective as blank slate on which his criminal investigations can be written goes back to Chandler's Philip Marlowe and, before that, Paul Cain's The Fast One. His prose is to-the-point, clear and conversational.  From Femme:

In the dozen years I spent in law enforcement and the thirty years I've been a private investigator, I never once had the misfortune to cross paths with this type of seductress. Never expected to. Never thought much about the breed except when confronted with one in a film or the pages of a book or the pulp magazines I collect... [A] real femme fatale in classic mode? Not even close. If you'd told me one day I would, and that her brand of evil would be like nothing I could ever have imagined, I'd have laughed and said no way.

Both these books are essentially novellas, yet they carry the punch of novels. In fact,  Kinsmen, about a far-right group in the Pacific Northwest, first appeared some twenty years ago, but remains timely in an era when racism continues to raise its ugly head. My advice: get both of them, and treat yourself to a writer who, over the years, has honed his literary chops to perfection, and, like his predecessor, Ross Macdonald, can write convincingly about individuals and the effect of violence as well as the dark side of the culture. Now to turn my attention to some of those other seventy novels he's  written over the past fifty years...

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Catching Up- Max Allan Collins's Target Lancer and Bye Bye, Baby, Ariel S. Winter's Twenty-Year Death, Richard Lingeman's The Noir Forties

The books have been piling up, so I thought I'd better try to clear some of the backlog with a few quick reviews.

-Target Lancer and Bye Bye, Baby by Max Allan Collins (Forge): I've always had a soft spot for Collins. If nothing else, he's certainly  one of the hardest working guys in crime fiction. But you do have to be prepared to suspend no small amount disbelief to fully appreciate his work. How, after all, could one protagonist know so many notable people and be at the nexus of so many historical moments? Still, his books are invariably interesting and his last couple Nathan Heller-- "p.i. to the stars"- novels are  no exception. Think James Ellroy minus the warped personal obsessions and off-the-wall perspective, though that, of course, is what makes Ellroy so fascinating as well as occasionally unreadable. Nevertheless, the two writers inhabit more or less the same historical territory, which is why Collins has said that he doesn't read his fellow-fabulator of history. Certainly, Collins is the more readable and also the more prosaic. Not that his  protagonists are without their quirks and obsessions. Target Lancer concerns a plot to kill JFK, in November, 1963, but in Chicago rather than Dallas, where, according to historical records Collins claims to have uncovered, another attempt on JFK's life was being planned. All the usual suspects are included here, and, of course, Nate Heller is in the thick of it. This is someone who, in the past, has not only worked for RFK and Hoffa, but knows Sam Giancana and Jack Ruby, as well as Sinatra and any number of other Hollywood personalities. As usual, Collins gives good history, with an ability to reduce it all to a human level. In a sense I preferred Collins' previous Heller novel, Bye Bye, Baby, about the death of Marilyn Monroe. Though both subjects have been written about ad nauseum, at least in the latter, Collins gives a few minor  characters some space. Which is a good thing, particularly if, like me, you adhere to the Grover Lewis school of reportage, and believe it's the minor characters- drivers, butlers, care givers and takers- that a writer should concentrate on. Naturally,  there's an element of voyeurism in Heller's relationship to Monroe. But, then, how could a novel about Monroe not be voyeuristic?

-The Twenty-Year Plan by Ariel S. Winter (Hard Case Crime): In fact, three novels, a triptych of sorts, that span  twenty years. Each taking place in a different era and an homage to a specific hardboiled writer. The first, Malniveau Prison, set in France, pays its respects to Simenon, and effectively evokes  the enclosed provinciality and contemplative voice of that author's Maigret novels, with a touch of his non-Maigret work thrown in for good measure. A corpse is uncovered, thought to come from an escape-proof prison where Inspector Pelleter has just been interviewing a serial killer. Later Pelleter comes across the murdered man's daughter, Clothilde, a teenager married to Shem, a wealthy American.  The bodies of other prisoners are discovered, while Pelleter's interviews with the serial killer gives him  a unique perspective on a series of grisly crimes. The second part, The Falling Star, is an homage to Chandler. Fortunately, Winter avoids imitating Chandler's eloquent but bitter style, which has been parodied all-too-often. At the same time, he manages  to capture the moral dilemmas and anxieties of  Chandler's protagonist. It's the 1940s and Chloe, a French movie actress,is being stalked, which prompts  the head of security at her Hollywood studio to ask  investigator Dennis Foster  to look into the matter. Chloe is, of course, Clothilde, who by now has relocated to America with her husband.  The latter is having an affair with a would-be actress who herself is later murdered. Foster believes it's a set-up. But the further he takes his investigation, the more he finds a Hollywood that's seething in corruption, ugliness and death. While his efforts reach a conclusion, Chloe winds up in a sanitarium.  Which leads to the the third section, Police at the Funeral, which is an homage to Jim Thompson and the pulp tradition of the 1950s. Shem,  now an alcoholic, is  traveling back to attend the funeral of his first wife from whom he hopes to inherit enough money keep Chloe in her  sanitarium. A first-person tale of someone whose drinking drives him into a nightmare world of violence, Shem does what any encrazed Thompson character might do: he accidentally commits a murder,  tries to write a play, and  gets conned by his current girlfriend. In a voice reminiscent of a Thompson protagonist, Shem says, "Killing someone was a whole lot like writing."  In all, Winter's novel is a slow death as much about mood as plot, perceptive in its association of each era with a particular crime narrative.

 -The Noir Forties- The American People from Victory to Cold War by Richard Lingeman (Nation Books): I only wish Lingeman had spent more time on the subject of noir and its relationship to the era from which it derived. After all, that's what the title suggests. However, Lingeman's  more interested in the period itself, which he relates along with personal asides that  more or less bookend his study. If not more noir, then perhaps  a bit more of the personal stuff. Not that the history of that era, one that corresponds with the golden age of noir, isn't important or interesting. It's just one tends to get lost in the telling, and it's not as if some of it has not been told before. To be fair, the book is as much a history as a  paean to the the struggle of liberals and progressives, and the effect and aftermath of the New Deal. And to his credit, Lingeman intersperses that history and struggle with individual stories and side-glances towards various art forms. Nevertheless, the book, or at least its title, only serves to remind  me the degree to which the term  "noir" has become co-opted, not so much in Lingeman's book as in the culture at large. To the point where the term refers simply to a particular style or look. In other words, noir, as a concept, has become depoliticised.  Having said that, Lingeman can be interesting when talking about such films- at least he is in this interview for the Nation-   and how regressive politics can sometimes lead to inventive and  highly political films. He even quotes Borde and Chaumeton in their famous essay, saying, "In every sense of the word, a noir film is a film of death." About  his  undercover work in Japan during the Korean War, where his job was to keep tabs on Japanese ultra nationalists, Lingeman says, "Working in this shadow world, I developed a taste for the night city, with its louche back-alley bars and hot-bed hotels, the exhilarating dangers, the sense of living on the edge." I wanted to hear more about that as well, which sounds like it could have been a noir narrative in itself. So next time, more noir, please. Although one shouldn't be seduced by the title, Lingeman's book is fine for those who want their history with a small dose of noir.  But if you're after a larger dose, backed by history, you'd be better advised to stick to the likes of Naremore's More Than Night and Christopher's Somewhere In the Night.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Gunshots In Another Room: The Forgotten Life of Dan J. Marlowe by Charles Kelly

If Charles Kelly's  intimate portrait of the hardboiled writer, Dan J. Marlowe, Gunshots In Another Room isn't quite on a par with Polito on Thompson, Garnier on Goodis, Sallis on Himes and Freeman on Chandler, it isn't far off. And in a sense, all the more interesting because, unlike the above, Marlowe, to date, isn't as well known, and, for the most part, hasn't been given the credit he deserves.

Like Goodis and Thompson, Marlowe spent years churning out  paperback originals for the likes of Gold Medal. A jobbing writer, his was a world of word-counts, a study of the writing market and  how he might publish and profit from it. Willing to take on anything that presented itself, he published not only crime novels but spy stories, pornography, books for young adults, newspaper columns, reviews, etc..  Anything that enabled him to make a living from his typewriter. In 1968 he claimed to have written 894,000 commercial words, for which he made something in the region of $10,000.

My first exposure to Marlowe's was his classic The Name of the Game Is Death. It's a sleazy crime-on-the-road novel, with a tough-guy protagonist whose sexual identity is never less than ambiguous. A novel that Stephen called "the hardest of the hardboiled." So intrigued was I by Marlowe's novel that I immediately had to dig deeper not only into his writing but into the genre itself, which led to what must have been  my first article on hardboiled fiction, Sleaze y Sleuth, which appeared in Rolling Stock, a periodical edited by Ed and Jenny Dorn back in the mid-1980s.

Until reading Kelly's well-researched book, I knew little about Marlowe. Now, amongst other things, I  know he was a hard drinker and, despite his Archie Bunker appearance, something of a womaniser, with old-school manners and moderate Republican politics. And that he only  turned to writing in his mid-forties, after working at various jobs, making money as a professional gambler and a stint as a minor  politician. Like his protagonist in Name of the Game..., Marlowe moved around the country, settling in Florida, Michigan and, finally, Los Angeles. He claimed his first novel, Doorway to Death, was written with only a character in mind, but without a plot. And even though he was nothing like his protagonists, he did befriend a bank robber, Al Nussbaum, incorporating him into his fiction as well as living with, or near him, for much of his life. Likewise, a substantial portion of the book is devoted to Nussbaum's true crime exploits.

Marlowe, by his own admission, was putting in "more sixteen than eight hour days." Maybe that had something to do with his subsequent amnesia, accompanied by aphasia. The cause was never discovered, though Marlowe would claim they were the result of a stroke. It would take him years to put his life back together, having to relearn how to live and write. Kelly relates all this and more with a sharp and sympathetic eye and a hardboiled style. Informative and well-written, Gunshots In Another Room makes for quite a story.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Black Wings Has My Angel by Elliott Chaze and One Is a Lonely Number by Bruce Elliott

Over the years Elliott Chaze's Black Wings Has My Angel has taken on a near-legendary status, and become one of the most sought-after of Gold Medal  novels. It's title alone- poetic and darkly evocative- is enticing enough. True to form, Gold Medal's teaser for this 1953 paperback pitched it somewhere between the sublime and  ridiculous: "She had the face of a madonna and a heart made of dollar bills."  However, since then Black Wings... has also gained a reputation as the most literary of pulp novels. And, happily, Chaze's novel, as this wonderful Stark House reissue attests, easily lives up to its reputation.

A year after it was published in the US, it appeared on the Serie Noire imprint in France, albeit in the usual, for that publishing house, truncated form, with the title Il gele en enfer (roughly "Hell Freezes Over"). Back then Chaze was publishing stories in the New Yorker, Cosmopolitan and Colliers, and putting together a string of novels, though none would be as visceral or pulp-oriented as Black Wings... 

Black Wings... is narrated in the first person by "Tim Sunblade," a recent escapee from Parchman Farm, who meets Virginia, a call-girl he's hired to satisfy his post-prison hunger. His ambition is to pull off a robbery that will set him up for life. Virginia is beautiful but highly unpredictable. She too has a past and is an escapee of sorts. At first Tim simply wants to get rid of her, but soon realizes she might be useful. Eventually he falls in love with her. Together they pull off the robbery, but that, of course, is just the beginning of their problems.

"I was sick of Virginia, too, and of what the money had done to the both of us, changing a tough, elegant adventuress with plenty of guts and imagination into a candy-tonguing country club Cleopatra who nested in bed the whole day long and thought her feet were too damned good to walk on."

Spending most of his time in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, Chaze also worked as  an Associated Press reporter in Colorado and Louisiana. Not surprisingly, these three locales- Mississippi, Colorado and Louisiana- form the backdrop to Black Wings.... By the time Chaze died in Mamou, Louisiana in 1990, he only had a hint that his book had developed a cult following. The likes of  Max Collins, Bill Prozini and Edward Gorman had proclaimed Black Wings... the quintessential Gold Medal novel, and Barry Gifford paid him a visit in  Hattiesburg to talk about Black Lizard publishing his novel, writing about the experience and the book in an issue of Oxford American. Unfortunately, Gifford's plans had to be  ditched when new owners took over his company. Presently, Black Wings... is about to hit the screen, starring Anna Paquin and Elija Wood, with a  screenplay by Gifford. I hope it turns out to be at least half as good as the book, though, of course, I'm not betting on it.  

"I couldn't stand not to look either. I think I'm going crazy. I've got to look at it and I can't, like a woman who's known for months she had a cancer and the doctor finally tells her it's there and he tells her where to look to see it. And she must look at it but she can't.”  

 Chaze's novel is preceded by another downbeat narrative, this one by Bruce Elliott entitled One is a Lonely Number. I hadn't had much intention of reading this one, but two pages into the book I was hooked and finished it off in two sittings. How could I not with paragraphs like this: 

"The night was dark but alive. It was too hot to sleep in stinking box-like rooms, rooms just enough bigger than a coffin so that bodies had to be moved when they died, but not big enough so a human could endure living in them. Radios blared from the open windows all around him. Middle-aged blowsy women hung out windows, looking, searching, as if they could see something that would be different enough from what they had seen the night before so that later they could say, oh that musta been the night that Charley got cut up, or Betty got punched around, or whatever it was they were looking for, waiting for."

Not as  literary as Black Wings..., but the writing is still very good, feeding into a rapid-fire narrative, which, by the end, will leave you gasping. And it's as  perverse a tale as you're going to read, one that fits squarely in the Jim Thompson-Gil Brewer school of warped hard-boiled prose. The novel opens with Larry,  an ex-musician, and yet another escapee from prison- in this case Joliet- in bed with a  prostitute. All he needs to do is get some money together and get to Mexico.  Needless to say, with everyone trying to get him to do their dirty work, his plans do not according to plan.    

Not that much is known about  Bruce Elliott. His real name was Walter Gardner Lively Syacy, was born in 1915, hit by a car in 1972 and ended up in a coma, before dying  in 1973. One Is a Lonely Number was published in the US by Lion Books in 1952 and in France under the title Un tout seul in 1954.  As well as mysteries, Elliott wrote sci-fi, including a comic fantasy about Satan entitled The Devil Was Sick, TV scripts and a number of stories for Shadow magazine. He was also a stage magician who wrote various books on the subject, including Professional Magic Made Easy and The Professional Magician. One Is a Lonely Number represents yet another  lost novel unearthed by Stark House, which, as far as I'm concerned, has become one of the preeminent publishers of hardboiled fiction.