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.