Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Undeerrated Hyperbola: Perfidia by James Ellroy

"The city would build up and out after the war. The war gave him L.A. ablaze with crazy purpose. The war let him love L.A. one last time as it was."  Perfidia, p. 574

Perfidia: nearly 700 pages of hyper-driven narrative, forensic detail, fevered declarations and musings populated by a cast of warped and obsessive individuals in Los Angeles, December 1941, before, during and after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. That about sums it up, and, to my surprise, I found Perfidia, despite initial misgivings, to be an interesting, provocative, even innovative novel from a writer whose recent work has been, to my mind, disappointing. Yet I still highly rate his work up to and including American Tabloid, which, for me, constitute one of the major post-Chandler revisions of the genre, not only because of their narrative power, but in their portrayal of male anxiety in an era of trickle down economics, political correctness, feminism, hegemonic decline, not  to mention Ellroy's psychogeographical (with an emphasis on psycho) portrayal of his native city.

For me, novels like The Cold Six Thousand and Blood's A Rover were too dispersed and lacked the edginess and personal investment of Ellroy's earlier fiction. Maybe he'd grown complacent, or had become too reliant on his own hype and image, which tended to play into the hands of Hollywood producers and readers seeking surface thrills over noir substance. It wasn't so much that he was beginning to parody himself as lost in a world that wasn't quite his own, one not nearly as personal as that which formed the backdrop of earlier fiction. Even My Dark Pages, despite it subject matter, seemed more distant and less interesting than his The Black Dahlia, the central event of which stood in proxy for his mother's murder. Then there's the matter of Ellroy's writing style: the condensation of his sentences into police reportage and sound bites, his machine-gun, often comic book, prose. Not to mention those films which were, at best, mediocre and, at worst, barely watchable.

Such was the hype and adulation that it seemed too easy to criticise or characterise him, or even write about him. In a sense, Ellroy as a commodity had become so over-inflated, if not over-rated, that he was looking distinctly underrated, or, at any rate, appreciated for the wrong reasons. Which is partly why I was interested in reading his latest. Or it could be I was just curious to see if Ellroy had changed tack. So I approached Perfidia with low expectations, but intrigued that he was going back to the period prior to when the L.A. Quartet takes place, with characters from those and related novels.

Yes, Perfidia's length makes it a long slog, but then Ellroy, never one to do anything by half-measures, has always sought out sufficient space to spin out his narratives. And this one is as narratively complicated as anything he's written. Moreover, in terms of style, Perfidia is something of a compromise between his earlier hard-hitting prose and the short sharp shock-prose of his later fiction. One could even say that Perfidia, mixing historical data with Ellroy's off-centered take on the world, is modernist crime fiction with a vengeance.  It's also quite a political novel. Or, at any rate, it takes place within a political context. Though Ellroy's novels have always been, in a sense, political, albeit from a libertarian point of view. But, then, how could a novel about the treatment of Japanese-Americans post-Pearl Harbor, not be political, particularly with obvious comparisons to 9/11 and its aftermath, with Japanese Americans rather than Muslims the objects of public vitriol.

Though Perfidia has a large cast of characters, it revolves around the complicated adventurer and informer  Kay Lake. Smart enough to critique the prevailing LAPD ethos- The lie that  race defines human beings. The lie that dissent defines sedition....The definitive lie of fearful hatred."- and, on the other hand, add a Ballardian end-times perspective when, looking out on Sunset Blvd from her apartment, she says, "Sirens would sound; the city would go dark within moments. I wanted to be here for that." It's Kay's journal entries that provide the glue which holds the novel together. But don't expect logic or clear thinking from Kay, who is as obsessed and weird as Perfidia's  other characters, from the Japanese American forensic cop Hideo Ashida who must negotiate the dangerous post-Pearl Harbor landscape (according to crime writer Naomi Hirahara, a Niesi on the LAPD in 1941 was highly unlikely), to Dudley Smith, already a encrazed force of nature; and the deranged William Parker some years before becoming LA chief of police. And if only a fraction of what Ellroy writes about Parker is true, no wonder, under his reign, the LAPD would go on to have such problems.

Since it takes place prior to the L.A. Quartet, it, of course, works overtime to adds substance and backstory to the latter. Though knowing what we know, it might be hard to countenance Dudley Smith's intimacies, one has to remind oneself of that fact.  Written in what Ellroy describes as real time (as opposed to what, unreal time?), Perfidia cuts a thin line between history and the author's jump-cutting imagination. That the book lacks suspense isn't surprising, since Ellroy has shown little interest in the whodunnit aspect of crime fiction, opting instead for rambling, complex character-driven narratives. So there's barely any point speculating on a given perpetrator, because, in Ellroy's world, everyone is, to one degree or another, guilty, and, in any case, he's more intent on putting across his particular view of history, which, as he sees it, is created by events that conflict with obsessive and paranoid personalities. Conspiracy?  What else is there?

Filled with evidence of human weakness, fallibility, duplicity and capitalist land-grabs, politely known as redevelopment, Perfidia, as much fiction as fact, evokes an era and society torn apart by fear, racism and nationalism. Written in Ellroy's typical pulp prose, sometimes poetic, sometimes tedious, repetitious or excessive, but always in the vernacular, Perfidia moves from grand gesture to apocalyptic banality. With its strengths and weaknesses are intertwined,  the novel began to run out of steam late on, at the point when Dudley and Parker form a pact,  after which Kay's journal seems to take a dive plot-wise. And what on earth is Ellroy's obsession with starlet lookalikes and surgical makeovers, which seemed to have cropped up in earlier novels? Nevertheless, Perfidia is definitely  a novel to be reckoned with, and a welcome return from the author's sojourn into gangsterland. One thing for sure, Ellroy knows his history, allowing him to "love L.A. one last time as it was." And to demonstrate that, whether before, during or after, the city was, for many, never the most comfortable place to be. And there are three more novels in the series to come. As rightwing cop Carl Hull says to Dudley Smith, "The real war starts when this one ends."

Monday, December 08, 2014

A Dirty Baker's Dozen: My Thirteen Favorite Crime Novels of 2014

Not necessarily the best, but my favourites of 2014, in no particular order, with links to my reviews where applicable:

- A Man Lies Dreaming by Lavie Tidhar (Hodder)

- The Fever by Megan Abbott (Little Brown/Picador)

- Perfidia by James Ellroy (Knopf/Random House)

-The Death Instinct by Jacques Mesrine (Tam Tam)

- Brainquake by Samuel Fuller (Hard Case Crime/Titan)

- Half World by Scott O'Connor (Scribe)

- There Ain't No Justice- by James Curtis (London Books)

- A Spy Among Friends by Ben Macintyre (Bloomsbury)

- Of Cops and Robbers by Mike Nicol (Old Street)

- Darkness, Darkness by John Harvey (Arrow)

- The Mad and the Bad by Jean-Patrick Manchette, trans by Donald Nicholson-Smith (NYRB)

- Third Rail by Rory Flynn (Houghton Miflin)

- Futures by John Barker (PM Press)

Bubbling under:

- Spouses and Other Crimes by Andrew Coburn (Stark House)

Chance- by Kem Nunn (Scribner)

The Man Who Loved Dogs by Leonardo Padura (Bitter Lemon)

The Getaway Car by Donald Westlake (University of Chicago)

North Beach Girl/Scandal On the Sand by John Trinian (Stark House)

Death's Sweet Song/Whom Gods Destroy by Clfton Adams (Stark House)

Midnight Road by Jada Davis (Stark House)

The Whitehall Mandarin by Edward Wilson (Arcadia)

An annotated version of this list can be found at the L.A. Review of Books.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Pulping the Nazis: A Man Lies Dreaming by Lavie Tidhar

A Man Lies Dreaming by Lavie Tidhar, a well-travelled Israeli currently residing in London, concerns the warp and woof of what was, what might have been and, to some degree, what still is. In Tidhar's book, it's 1939 and a writer of pulp fiction, Shomer, incarcerated in Auschwitz, imagines a book about Wolf, a once formidable German dictator, who has escaped from his native land following a communist take-over, and is now in London working as a private-eye. Not that Wolf is the only ex-Nazi in London. Pretty much all of the big guns have decamped in the capital where anti-semite fascist Oswald Mosley is about to become prime minister.

Still a megalomaniac, though no longer a leader of men, Wolf has hit rock bottom, just another fallen schlemiel, traipsing London's mean streets, humiliated by one and all (including a circumcision scene that's not easy to forget). With his reputation has preceeding him, he's hired by a young, beautiful, wealthy and sex-obsessed Jewish woman to locate her sister, as well as by Mosley who wants to know who might be after him.  Throw in the time-honoured cliche of murdered prostitutes and you get a parallel universe, or xenophobic dreamscape of a London that is just about imaginable, depending, of course, on who is doing the imagining- in this case Shomer and reader alike. In Tidhar’s novel everyone is compromised- whether Nazi or Jew. Of course, the police think it's Wolf who has committed those murders. And as yesterday's news, the poor guy can't even make any money from his autobiography Mein Kampf. Only Leni Riefenstahl seems to have escaped unscathed, to Hollywood, where acting opposite Humphrey Bogart, she's starring in a film called Tangier, which is Casablanca, written, of course, by F. Scott Fitzgerald, a writer whom Wolf claims to admire. In any case, a nightmare landscape that becomes, for Wolf, all too real.

Uncategorisable- think PK Dick crossed with Jim Thompson's King Blood-  what makes this novel so subversive isn't the warped alternative universe Tidhar establishes, but that he's out to muddy the waters when it comes to the perceived Manicheistic wisdom regarding the history of that era.  Merging fact, fiction and fantasy, Tidhar also delivers an interesting take on the state of Israel, the holocaust industry and the power to imagine what the unimaginable. Here Jewish guilt takes on a new meaning, while the characters who inhabit the novel-  whether Hitler (trans. Noble Wolf), Mosley, Diana and Unity Mitford, Goering, Barbie, Hess, etc.- are only slightly off-centre, imagined by someone who, in turn, is being imagined. Like the Watcher in the novel, who tracks Wolf, as he himself is watched, imagined, written, etc..

So subversive and darkly humorous is this novel that I couldn't help but wonder about the author's safety in certain quarters. But, then, this is the same guy who wrote an earlier novel entitled Osama. Clearly, this is someone who deserves a certain amount of respect. As for Hitler...well, there are all too many Hitlers around these days. Not quite  the "banality of evil" that Hannah Arendt spoke of, but more like its distant, drug-addled and boisterous cousin. But, then, maybe, within time every dictator, no matter how degenerate and  horrible, becomes just another object of disgust and ridicule. 

Interesting that a pulp fiction writer named Shomer actually did exist, and, as Tidhar notes, was roundly criticised by none other than Sholem Aleichem for indulging in such penny-ante fantasies. Tidhar also quotes from a concentration camp pulpist Ka-Tzetnik, who, in The Code, wrote, "Auschwitz was not created by the devil, but by men, like you, or me." No wonder, in Tidhar's book, everyone, whether as instigators or out of retribution, is capable of anything. Citing Ka-Tzetnik made me want  to track down the latter's House of Dolls, about the camp's notorious Joy Division, and look into the holocaust porn and Naziploitation pulp that, according to Tidhar, has been so popular in Israel. In the end, reading A Man Lies Dreaming (lies meaning what exactly?), I couldn't help but think about the equally subversive notion put forward by my late friend, the actor Bradley Porter, who liked to maintain  that if  Israel was meant to come into existence, as religious Jews were wont to say, only after the coming of the messiah, then that country could only have been founded on false pretences. Or, if that religious prerequisite was true, that, combined with the notion that the holocaust necessitated the state of Israel, must mean the person who instigated the holocaust which led to the state of Israel could only have been the messiah. As  Bradley liked to say, "Oy vey, in spades... " In any case, it's definitely something for Tidhar to consider.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Cry For a Nickel, Die For a Dime: Stories Behind the Story


Cry For a Nickel, Die For a Dime takes place in Los Angeles in the summer of 1960. JFK is in town, about to nominated by the Democrats for the upcoming presidential election; Dodger Stadium is under construction; the political influence of the Los Angeles Times’ Chandler family is at its height; Mickey Cohen is the city’s top mobster; rhythm and blues is being co-opted by large record companies; and the line separating business from organised crime has grown extremely narrow. So Cry For a Nickel, Die For a Dime sets out to investigate the various morbid symptoms produced by that particular period of transition and circumstances, fitting it all into the noir tradition of grand gesture and obsessive personalities, false turns and femmes fatales, corrupt individuals and absurd declarations, secret lives and shady pasts.

It’s also an era in which news photographers are forever snapping photos of movie stars, sports personalities, politicians and gangsters, plastering them across the pages of newspapers and scandal sheets. Which is one reason I wanted to place at the centre of my novel’s narrative an unscrupulous freelance news photographer,  Abe Howard, who makes his living shooting photos of celebrities in compromising positions and dead bodies in the early stages of decomposition.  Abe comes from Chicago where he grew up alongside a litany of shady characters. Soon he was working for various newspapers, taking photos of gangster including some unsolicited shots of Capone, which landed Abe in some extremely hot water. Now living in Pasadena with a wife and two kids, he does whatever he has to do to make a living. It’s only when he gets off some shots of a dead up and coming jazz musician, he finds himself in serious trouble with the mob, not helped by his involvement with a femme fatale record executive out to exploit black music for the sake of rock and roll.

In fact, Abe is very loosely based on a mixture of my father, Albert Haut, with a dash of Weegee thrown in for good measure. Though he worked as a news photographer during the Capone era in Chicago, and then Detroit, Albert Haut, unlike Abe, was no philanderer, nor was he working as news photographer in 1960, having long since traded in his press card for a Pasadena camera store. Yet Abe and Albert share a common background. Both were autodidacts schooled amongst anarchists in Chicago’s Bug House Square. Both served as a copy boy to Ben Hecht and Carl Sandburg. Picking up a camera, both would be amongst
the first (along with W.R. Burnett) to arrive at the scene of the St. Valentine’s Day massacre. Later, both, would be roughed up, their camera smashed by Al Capone’s gang for picking the wrong moment to take an unsolicited shot of their boss, only, on the following morning to receive a letter of apology from Capone, along with a new camera. Both would photograph John Dillinger in the courtroom, then, after a tip-off from his girlfriend, after he was gunned down outside the Biograph, pinning his eyes open, so the story goes, to make it look as though he were a frightened fugitive. And both were present at the Ford strikes in Michigan, took photos in the Ozarks for the WPA, and travelled with FDR on his campaign train.

It was no doubt seeing some of those photographs and hearing such stories that, from an early age, instilled in me a life-long interest in noir fiction and film, and, consequently, gave me the impetus to choose a freelance news photographer as the protagonist of my novel. And it’s why I intertwined those stories and the ethos of a freelance news photographer scrambling to make a living with what I knew about that period of Los Angeles regarding organised crime, music, baseball, politics, and geo-politics of the city. Not as nostalgia for a world gone by, but as the story of the city at a particular time and place, when, as someone once said, the old world was
dying and the new had yet to be born.




Music- jazz, blues and rhythm and blues- plays a big part in my novel Cry For a Nickel, Die For a Dime. Right down to the title of the novel, which, of course, comes from “Last Fair Deal Gone Down” by bluesman Robert Johnson:

“Please Ida Belle, don’t cry this time,
  Ida Belle, don’t cry this time,
  If you cry for a nickel, you’ll die for a dime,
  She will cry, put your money on mine.”

As the title of the novel implies, everyone in Cry For a Nickel, Die For a Dime appears to have a price, or, if not, are going to be forced to pay a price. Put another way, cry all you want, if you compromise for so little, you’re bound to give up everything for just a little bit more. But freelance news photographer Abe Howard, relatively uninformed when it comes to music, much less the record business, has no idea of the trouble that’s about to come his way when he photographs the body of a young jazz musician, a rising star in L.A. in 1960, and son of a local baseball legend. To complicate matters, Abe falls for Kim who works for Insignia, a local record company hoping to corner the market on R&B in order to make a killing off of rock and roll. To climb the company’s ladder, Kim has, on the one hand, to collude with some unwholesome characters, and, on the other, gather information from Felix, an eccentric blues 78 rpm record collector, has at his disposal.

Felix, a walking contradiction, really is partly fact and partly fiction, based, as he is, on the legendary 78 blues record collector James McKune, about whom I’d been interested in for some time. I’d heard his name back when I was a teenager hanging around The Jazz Man record store in Los Angeles. Born around 1910 on the east coast, the eccentric McKune was one of the earliest, perhaps the first, collectors of blues 78s. A nondescript type,  he was said to always wear the same clothes- white shirt, black pants, black shoes, white socks. Gay and an alcoholic, he worked as a New York Times sub-editor, a mail sorter for the Post Office, a desk clerk at the YMCA, and checker for a beer distributor, but was never able to hold down a steady job.  A storehouse of information and a collector par excellence, he quickly turned into a legend amongst blues collectors and the eminence grise of a group of collectors, called by some “the blues mafia.” Interestingly, McKune prided himself on never having any more than 300 records at any one time, which he constantly refined through trades and bargain purchases. Sadly, McKune was murdered in 1971. He was found strangled, bound and gagged in a welfare hotel on the Lower East Side, the victim of what was thought to be a homosexual serial killer, responsible for at least a half a dozen other murders in the area.

CIRCA 1945
Felix, in Cry For a Nickel, Die For a Dime, has many of McKune’s characteristics. To the point where I’m no longer sure where McKune ends and Felix begins, or, for that matter, what I’ve made up and what is known to be true.  In my novel, Felix is idolised by his small band of fellow collectors- a west coast version of the east coast blues mafia. Like McKune, Felix is gay with a penchant for rough trade, can’t hold a job, angers easily, lives at the YMCA, stores his 300 records in boxes under his bed, is offended by the inflationary costs of blues 78s, and willing to go anywhere in search of records.

While no art form exists in a vacuum, the politics of collecting and its relationship to the music hasn’t often been written about. In many ways Felix, like McKune, confirms the image of the  obsessive collector as a marginal type- think Steve Buscemi in Terry Zwigoff’s 2001 movie Ghost World- who insulates himself in an alternative world, one which looks back to the past as a way of escaping the present, even if that means sanitising the more dangerous and subversive aspects of the music he- and usually is he- loves.

But one of the collectors in Cry For a Nickel… does manage to connect collecting blues 78s with the politics of the culture. Though he looks and dresses like a banker, Ira, as well as collecting 78s, plays a National guitar, and sings classic blues songs in a voice that’s barely above a whisper. He idolises Felix, but is willing to engage with the world. He not only lends a helping hand to Abe’s wife, but he puts his body where his soul is, travelling a couple years later to Mississippi to register voters, only to be beaten up by the Klan, his hands broken so badly he’s unable to ever play his guitar again.

Back in 1960, when Cry For a Nickel… takes place, Los Angeles was a musical paradise. Teenagers, white and black, were listening to the likes of Johnny Otis and Little Richard and rhythm and blues radio d.j.’s like Hunter Hancock and Huggy Boy, maybe even going to the El Monte Legion Stadium on Saturdays nights to hear Don Julian and the Meadowlarks and Little Julian Herrera. It also had a lively jazz scene, even though it was a period that, just a few years before, had witnessed the demise of the Central Avenue club scene, once described as the Harlem of the West. Of course, these days L.A. is the entertainment capital of the world, but in 1960, smart record company hustlers, like Kim, had figured out that whoever controls the music might one day be able to call the shots, and, who knows, maybe even control the culture. What crime boss wouldn’t want to get in on that kind of action? But one false move and you’re bound to sing the blues. After all, if you cry for a nickel, you will most definitely die  for a dime.

Friday, October 24, 2014

The Many Sides of Donald Westlake: The Getaway Car and The Comedy Is Finished

I am certainly no expert when it comes to the work of Donald Westlake. Nevertheless, he's someone I've been reading for more years than I care to remember. And I've enjoyed just about everything I've read by him. I guess my first Westlake book was The Hunter, which I probably read after seeing John Boorman's neo-noir classic, Point Blank.  That one, of course, was written under the name Richard Stark, who would become known as Westlake's hardboiled doppelganger. Around that time I also read The Juggler, which apparently was Westlake's least favorite Stark novel. Then I found a copy of Hot Rock, a Dortmund novel written under Westlake's own name, and part of a series typified by Westlake's sharp humour. That must have been before the movie came out, because, unlike Point Blank, the 1972 film by Peter Yates wasn't exactly a film that would have encourage me to read the novel. Likewise, the 1973 Cops and Robbers, based on another Westlake novel. On the other hand, I've long admired John Flynn's The Outfit, adapted from a Stark novel. And, of course, Westlake's screenplay Stephen Frears' The Grifters could be the best adaptation of a Jim Thompson novel. However, the two Westlake novels I think I've enjoyed the most were The Ax and The Hook, both devastating critiques of late American culture. I guess that leaves a fairly hefty number of  Westlake novels I haven't read, as well as a few movies that either I've  haven't seen or don't recall seeing.

However, you don't have to be an expert on Westlake's fiction to be charmed by the recent volume of Westlake ephemera The Getaway Car, edited by Levi Stahl, published by University of Chicago Press. Though you probably have to be somewhat familiar with the range of Westlake's work over the years. Because Donald Westlake was one of the last of the working writers, even more so than his long-time friend, Lawrence Block, who provides an introduction to the book. The Getaway Car  contains a range of Westlake's non-fiction:  a fragment of an autobiography, essays, book intros, interviews, letters, and even a couple recipes. Particularly enjoyable is his article on Peter Rabe. It's essential reading for anyone interested in one of the best pulpists around. And it's probably the best essay on the writer. Though Rick Ollerman's introduction to a recent Stark House edition of Kiss the Boss Goodby and Mission For Vengeance comes a close second. Also illuminating is the interview with Westlake conducted by Patrick McGilligan. And, of course, it was nice to read Westlake's appreciation of Charles Willeford and his extended essay on Rex Stout.  Likewise, his take on Jim Thompson, that Westlake was initially reluctant to adapt The Grifters, thinking it too grim, until Frears pointed out that the story really belongs to the mother. Moreover, just about every entry in The Getaway Car contains a sampling of Westlake's self-deprecating but cutting humour, no more so than Hearing Voices In My Head, which is a tongue-in-cheek panel discussion, its participants being Westlake's various pen personalities- Tucker Coe,  Richard Stark, Timothy J. Culver as well as Westlake himself, with each incarnation acting out their part in an appropriate manner, until it descends into chaos.

Donald E. Westlake: The Sixties crime novel was joky (as opposed to funny), smart alecky, full of drugs, and self consciously its cast of blacks and homosexuals. The only Sixties mysteries with any merit at all were written in the Fifties by Chester Himes. On the other hand, the Sxities Westerns were even worse: Remember Dirty Dingus Magee?
Richard Stark: Okay, this has gone on long enough. Everybody on your feet.
Moderator: Good God, he's got a gun.
Richard Stark: Empty your pockets on the table. Come on, snap it up.
Timothy J. Culver: You can't mean this, Dick. We're your friends.
Richard Stark: No book published since '74 How do you think I live? Give me everything you've got.
Donald E. Westlake: Will you take a check?
Richard Stark: Beat the Devil, 1954. Robert Morley to Humphrey Bogart. They ought to ask me where you get your ideas. You, Tucker Coe, on your feet.
Moderator: He's not moving, he...

Another recent posthumous Westlake book is The Comedy is Finished,  recently published by Hard Case Crime/Titan. According to the Publisher's Note, Westlake wrote the novel in the late 1970s, but shelved it because he thought the novel too similar to Martin Scorsese's 1982 King of Comedy. Fortunately, he had sent a copy to Max Allan Collins, who stashed it away, only to reveal its existence after Hard Case published Westlake's Memory, which they claimed to be Westlake's final unpublished novel. Which is when Collins revealed the existence of this book. Westlake was partly right. The Comedy Is Finished does have an over-arching similarity, but the sub-plots and the characters are qualitatively different. Though I would personally prefer to re-read Westlake's novel than re-view Scorsese otherwise excellent film. One could just as easily say that Westlake's novel bears a resemblance to Don Carpenters A Couple of Comedians, though any such similarities would be equally superficial. Because Westlake's book distinctly his own, as is his absurdist view of the world. For me, its topicality- at least when it comes to the ear in which it was written and takes place- relates to those two favorites of mine- The Ax (mental note: must track down Costa-Gavras's screen adaptation) and The Hook.  In all, The Comedy Is Finished is a perfect showcase for  Westlake's writerly skills- that unique mixture of hardboiled prose and edgy, but razor sharp, humour.

Wednesday, October 08, 2014

A Fuller Life: The Story of a True American Maverick

I'm of the opinion that Samuel Fuller was a national treasure. If that's the case,  his films and autobiography, A Third Face, should be required viewing and reading in every high school and college. After all, his life not only covered most of the twentieth century, but he played an active role in that history, as both witness and participant. Unfortunately, he was never been accorded such accolades, at least not when he was alive.  Hopefully, Samantha Fuller's  heartfelt  hundred and twenty minute eulogy to her father might help change that.

A Fuller Life movie centres on Sam's own words and images taken from his films and personal archive,  including some hitherto unseen footage Samantha discovered after her father's 1997 death at age 87. Sam's words mostly come from his autobiography  read in Fuller's work-room by the likes of James Franco, Jennifer Beals, Buck Henry, Constance Towers, William Friedkin, Monte Hellman, Joe Dante, Wim Wendars and Bill Duke, who reads as though he's channeling his subject.  All, or most all, had dealings at one time or another with Fuller. Also thrown into this mix are a smattering of Sam's cartoons, articles and covers of his long-underrated novels.  

Samantha Fuller's film moves seamlessly from her father's years as a teenage journalist- a protege of Gene Fowler's- mostly as a crime reporter,  onto to Hollywood where he worked as a screenwriter. Only to give it up when the war arrived. Joining the infantry so he wouldn't miss out on "the biggest crime story of the century.", he participated in, and filmed, various campaigns including the Normandy landing ("War itself is organised insanity."), and the liberation of the Falkenau concentration camp where, as Fuller says in his daughter's film, "I made my first movie." Then back to Hollywood and a long career making hard-hitting, and often controversial, films, in some ways the visual equivalent of his populist tabloid journalism, always chasing down a story or pursuing the truth.

My only criticism  is that I would have liked to have had a few more personal asides. As it is only Constance Towers, still alluring some fifty years after appearing in Fuller's Naked Kiss and Shock Corridor, is given sufficient on-screen time to reminisce about working with Fuller. But that's a minor point in what is an extremely watchable and valuable film, whose simplicity never fails to work in its favour. This is a film that will interest all Fuller fans, and no doubt some who have only the vaguest notion of this most formidable of American directors.

An added note:  I thought I'd seen just about every Fuller film out there. But while watching A Fuller Life I discovered I'd actually missed one. Made for TV in 1990, starring Jennifer Beals, The Madonna and the Dragon is said to concern two journalists covering the People's Revolt in the Philippines. It would also be Fuller's final film. How could I have overlooked that one? Though I couldn't find it for sale on-line, the French version is on YouTube.

Monday, October 06, 2014

Anything Goes In Tinseltown: The Hollywood Trilogy by Don Carpenter

You can be sure that I'm never going to miss a chance to write about Don Carpenter. Not only is he one of my favorites, but no one writes about Hollywood better than he does. Which he ably demonstrates in The Hollywood Trilogy, recently published by Counterpoint. It's a volume that comprises three long unavailable novels:  A Couple of Comedians, The True Life Story of Jody McKeegan and Turnaround.  They, of course, come off the back of  the republication of Hard Rain Falling and, just a few months ago, Fridays at Enrico's, and represent those years Carpenter toiled in Tinseltown. The result of which was fairly meagre: the incredible film Payday, a TV movie and an episode of High Chaparral, not to mention a  purported screenplay based on Bukowski's The Post Office, which would never be made. No doubt there were many other unrealised projects.

All of which reminds me of the time I was visiting a writer friend.  It was sometime in late 1969. I was driving the graveyard shift for Yellow Cab,  the Zodiac was on the loose, and it was my night off.  I arrived at my friend's place to ask if he wanted to go out and hear some music. I think Tony Williams' Lifetime was playing at the Both/And club on Divisidero, the band that included Larry Young, Jack Bruce and John McLaughlin, which everyone was talking about.  My friend said, "Nah, I'm going to stay home and watch High Chaparral." I said, "High Chaparral?" He said, "Yeah, the episode that Carpenter wrote is on tonight." I rolled my eyes. Like, who cares?  I never watched TV and only knew a couple who owned one. "You know, the guy who used to work at Discovery," he said.  I said, "I know who he is, but I'm not going to sit around watching some fucking cowboy show just because he wrote it. Not on my night off."

Which is to say that we knew even then that Carpenter had some kind of form in Hollywood, though one senses that, other than the drugs and everything that goes along with that particular activity, it might not have been the happiest of times for him. However, it did result in these three novels, and a handful of stories, such as those that comprise The Art of Film from that early collection of his, The Murder of Frogs, another Carpenter book that thoroughly deserves republication.

Originally appearing in 1979, A Couple of Comedians is about a comedy team- think of a hip, drug-taking, women-chasing equivalent of Martin and Lewis.  In that usual Carpenter blend of humour, pathos and tragedy, the novel, narrated by one of the comedians, moves from Northern California down into that den of vipers known as Hollywood, where the two comedians encounter various types, pick up women, do as much dope as they can and meet up with their director, an egomaniac responsible for enhancing the careers of the duo. As the novel progresses it becomes clear that one of the two men, and consequently their comedy act, is about to collapse. The True Life Story of Jody McKeegan, first published in 1975, concerns a young woman who, from an early age, has wanted nothing more than to be a Hollywood actress.  She's had a rough life, moves through various men, using them and getting used by them, until, in her mid-thirties, she ends up with a Hollywood producer who just might give her the break she needs, even if it's a B-movie at best. The title sounds as though it might been something that would have appeared in Photoplay magazine in the 1950s, but the story is anything but that. Turnaround, which first appeared in 1981, is a coming of age novel centered around a young screenwriter, who has to learn the hard way how Hollywood works. Instead of writing screenplays, he churns out copy for Pet Care Hotline and gets advice from someone who runs the local porn bookstore.

When it comes to writing about Hollywood, Carpenter, who died in 1995, is, for me,  up there with Fitzgerald's Pat Hobby stories, or the gonzo-infested fiction of Bruce Wagner.  Still, there was another writer I kept thinking about while reading Jody McKeegan. At first I couldn't think who that writer might be.  Then I realised it was Jim Tully. That might sound odd, given Tully's reputation, but Carpenter's novels have the same narrative arc, are written in the same clear prose, touch on the low-life as well as the high-life, whether Hollywood, pool hall hustling, card playing or prison life. Though, unlike Tully, and, to some extent, Fitzgerald and Wagner, nothing in Carpenter's world is clear-cut or one-dimensional. What's more, The Hollywood Trilogy is as complex and honest a portrayal of Tinseltown as you are likely to come across.  Now if I could only track down that episode of High Chaparral.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Me and Sam and Whoever: Brainquake and the Origins of My Life as a Samuel Fuller Obsessive

Reading Samuel Fuller's recently published Brainquake, a novel any self-respecting Fullerista will want to read, made me think for some reason about the origins of my obsession- mild by some standards- for his films, from I Shot Jesse James to his adaptation of Goodis' Street of No Return, his fiction, from 144 Piccadilly to Brainquake, and his incredible autobiography A Third Face.

I'm pretty sure I first became aware of the culture importance, not to mention poetry, of Fuller's films sometime in 1968 while attending San Francisco State. At the time State's film department had a well-deserved reputation, with a number of screenings of different genres each week. Yet no one at State at that time would have dared screen a Samuel Fuller film. He just wasn't in fashion, probably considered too low-brow and in-your-face, neither European, avant-garde nor Alfred Hitchcock. A friend of a friend- I never actually knew his name- pointedly mentioned to me that Fuller's 1957 film Run of the Arrow was playing at a theatre on Market Street. At the time I didn't know a whole lot about  Fuller other than what I'd read in  Film Culture- those Naked Kiss stills!- and Andrew Sarris, who liked to maintain that Fuller was an authentic American auteur. Though, as a child, I'd been obsessed by Fuller's first film, I Shot Jesse James, watching it whenever it was shown on TV. Anyway, I went to see Run of the Arrow, and was entranced by it, fascinated by the camera work and narrative drive, though, at the same time, troubled by the complex motivations of Rod Steiger's O'Meara, a rebel veteran who, having refused to surrender at Appomatox, joins the Sioux. But I knew I had to see more films by this director.

Parenthetically, that same person who'd recommended Run of the Arrow, alerted me a little later to Coogan's Bluff playing on Market Street, then Fistful of Dollars. Soon I was a frequent visitor to those theatres which were either flea-pits or palaces, but usually a combination of the two.  This at a time when no self-respecting film addict would venture beyond  the Surf Theatre, the Presidio or Berkeley rep houses. It wasn't long before I became obsessed with not only Fuller, but Nick Ray and an assortment of film noir directors. So this mysterious person whose name I never knew was responsible in some way for my interest not only in Fuller but film noir. Interestingly, when the SF State student strike was in full swing, he sidled up to me to ask if I knew where he could buy a piece.  Very noir, but why was he asking me?  Did I look like some kind of arms dealer or gun runner?  I wonder now if he might have been, given the era and the ferment, some kind of police informer.  If so, it would have somehow been perversely appropriate.

Later I would seek out Samuel Fuller films wherever I could find them- a double-bill of Shock Corridor and Naked Kiss in London in the early 1970s, White Dog (never shown in the US) in Paris, Dead Pigeon on Beethoven Strasse in Berkeley,  and most of the others on British TV at one time or another.  Then, in the mid-1970s,  I bought a secondhand copy of Phil Hardy's Studio Vista book, which, at the time, was probably the only book available on Fuller.  I could now track down his TV work as well as movies. I clearly remember my excitement at seeing a daytime re-run of Fuller's episode of The Virginian, which, despite its obvious compromises, seemed at the time almost as dark as I Shot Jesse James.

Around that time I started coming across his novels, beginning, thanks to Nick Kimberly at Compendium Books in Camden Town, with 144 Piccadilly, followed by The Big Red One. Soon I was collecting the novels, including a pristine armed services edition of The Dark Page. Actually, when you think about it, there aren't many novel-writing film directors. Or at least I can't think of many. There's Sayles, Pasolini, Cimino, Mamet, Elia Kazan, Mailer, Peter Handke, and no doubt some others. But no one makes films and writes novels quite like Sam Fuller. In fact, his films and books are pretty much interchangeable, and, of course, a number of his films would be adapted from novels he'd written.    

Which brings us back to Brainquake. This is a novel written during the 1980s in Paris where  Fuller had exiled himself in the wake of the White Dog debacle. It wasn't unusual for Fuller to spend his non-directing time writing fiction. But the result this time was one of his best. Though Brainquake found a publisher in Japan as well as France, it would go without an English language publisher until the present edition by Hard Case Crime. Too bad Fuller didn't live long enough to turn it into a film. Yet so rapid and sensational are the first few pages of the novel that I was left as exhausted as I was perplexed. Then in the fourth chapter I came across the following and was totally hooked:

She didn't believe in redemption when it came to taking a human life. To her that was breaking the law of life, not the law written somewhere on a piece of paper. She didn't believe in the why of murder, in any medical or psychological explanations for it. The hell with why. What, where, when, who. You kill, you're caught, the door slams behind you. You can spend the rest of your life in a cage, or you can do the decent thing and kill yourself. That was fine. She never begrudged a killer a second killing, as long as the second victim was herself...

We're back to Fuller the humanitarian iconoclast. Having opened with the literary equivalent of a newspaper headline, Fuller digs down into the characters themselves. Though at first they seem to have jumped from the pages of a comic book, they quickly turn into complex individuals. Everyone- whether mobster, cop, veteran, femme fatale, or hit-men- has their own agenda, code of conduct, rationalisations and peculiarities. So there's a hit-man with well-defined principles, as well as a mentally damaged bagman who's also a poet, barely verbal and lacking any knowledge of the world. Here everyone is a victim, deranged by their crimes or their circumstances. As under-rated  a novelist  as he was once under-rated as a director, Fuller's novels might be plot-driven, but he could write character-driven scenes of considerable beauty, with all the contradictions of everyday life, as in this description of the police photographer doing his job, while dreaming of what might be:

The tunnel between Al's lower teeth at closest focus was cutaneous crypt. His tongue drooped down the corner of his mouth through red lava. Fingernail scratches were red trenches in a Sahara wadi. The ceiling bulb reflecting in his frozen eyes was elliptical Daliism. Taken by the police photographer for his personal collection, the photos would eventually win acclaim when he published them in an art book selling for fifty dollars a copy.

He returned to the mundane official coverage of Al sprawled on the floor littered with red roses and pieces of broken vase. It was boring but the picture editor had a hard-on for that stuff. Picture editors had no taste. They had no imagination, nor artistry. Rarely would of them understand the many things a corpse reflected other than a body on the floor, in a tub, in the street. They were antiquated. Like Norman Rockwell today.

To catch the impact of sudden death, it took art. Only an artist could make that impact memorable, breathe life into death. Take this body. It was so goddam corny the photographer wanted to gag. Not the slightest spark of anything original to it. He could write the whole story of it himself, in the words of one syllable. The man, the girl. The want. She's shy. He takes. She shoots. He's dead. She runs. One day he would have his book, and it would haunt everyone who saw it, because all kinds of violent death caught a different picture of beauty, of nature that homicide create. This here?  Was why newspapers were used for lining litterboxes.

Beautifully put though, in the context of the novel, one hundred percent wrong.  However, in Fuller's fiction and films everyone has their own way of perceiving the world.

Brainquake, like all his other books and films, represents Fuller the tabloid reporter, muckraker, observer, and absurdist. This is a novel that's full of surprises and moves like a low flying aircraft from New York to France. It's as though Fuller had finally shaken loose the shackles of those dark pages of reportage and, juggling various characters and points of view, emerged into the world of modernist noir fiction.  

And for those interested, here's a trailer for A Fuller Life, directed by Samuel Fuller's daughter, Samantha:

Wednesday, September 03, 2014

A Spy Among Friends by Ben Macintyre

In the last years of his life, French noirist Jean-Patrick Manchette concluded that the genre in which he had been writing had, when it came to addressing the political reality of the world, become ensnared in the parameters of its own invention. So he decided to turn his attention to spy fiction. Though I would agree that  espionage novels often display a wider scope and can be politically acute, I'm not quite ready to abandon noir fiction altogether. This even though I'm often left asking myself why I'm reading such books, wondering just what a given author is trying to say other showing that they are familiar with the grim reality of the everyday world. Not that espionage novels don't function within their own spectrum of cliches. Which might explain why I've lately been turning to non-fiction, for example the fascinating A Spy Among Friends by Times journalist Ben Macintyre, which  revolves around the notorious spy and Russian defector Kim Philby and his two friends, associates and eventual adversaries Nicholas Elliott and James Jesus Angleton. The former, like Philby, a golden boy in  MI6, while the latter, Angleton, was instrumental in the formation of the CIA and head of counter intelligence.

But this is also a book about class, the old boys network, and the British establishment, the remnants of which are still with us. Though the present government, ruled by ex-members of the Bullingdon Club, tells us otherwise. Though they are amateurs in comparison, and London mayor Boris Johnson a pale imitation to his predecessors.

By "establishment," we're talking about unaccountable power in the hands of the few, brought together, at least in  Philby and Elliott's day, by public school, club, country, cricket and Tory politics. With, of course, a high tolerance for peccadilloes and eccentric behaviour. Macintyre traces Philby's, Elliott's and Angleton's respective lives, including how, over the years, they intersect. In the case of Philby and Elliott, growing up with distant and eccentric fathers (Philby's an advisor to King Ibn Saud and eventually convert to Islam, Elliott's a headmaster who believed in an extreme version of tough love), public school, and Cambridge, where  Philby,  MacLean, Burgess and Blunt met, and their idealistic belief in the Soviet Union was nurtured. From which point it was an easy leap to MI6 (reminding me of Tony Benn saying that when he left Oxford he was expected to join MI6,  politics being a career of a distinctly lower order) and, for Philby, Burgess, Maclean and Blunt, Soviet spies.

As pathetic and, in the end, sad as his life was, and as duplicitous and destructive as his action were, I couldn't help but feel a certain amount of admiration for Philby. After all, he might have been a traitor, responsible for a number of deaths, but one could say that at least he never acted out of self-interest. Macintyre believes he was simply addicted to deception. That might be the case, but it might also be a slight over-simplification. Philby was also a true believer and there was nothing in his life that could possibly over-ride that. Of course, the establishment gathered around him, as they usually do. Nevertheless, I still found it remarkable that the political  career of the foreign secretary Harold Macmillan could have survived after exonerating Philby in parliament. That he could then go on to become prime minister would be unthinkable today. Or that Anthony Eden could have also survived having rejected an inquiry. Most touching of all was the final meeting between Elliott and Philby,  separated by their respective positions, with Elliott taking it upon himself to extract a confession from his old friend. This after Philby had spent years milking Elliott for information, just as he had spent years gaining information form  the anglophile Angleton, deflating this ex-poet and supremely paranoid spook in the process. John Le Carré's afterward highlights this brotherhood. He asks Elliott, who by the 1980s had retired only to advise Thatcher on intelligence matters, "Could you have him (Philby) killed?" Elliott responds: "My dear chap...One of us." Nevertheless, after Philby's defection, things would never be the same. The establishment would continue to exist, of course, but Angleton would never recover from the betrayal, nor would Elliott. Likewise,  the relationship between MI6 and CIA, and between MI6 and the more déclassé MI5, who had always been out to get the toff Philby.

Coincidentally,  Owen Jones in a recent article in the Guardian writes about the origin and meaning of the term "establishment," tracing it back to the formidable Times and Spectator journalist and author of such books as The Spoiled Child of the Western World: The Miscarriage of the American Idea in Our Time and The Kennedy Promise, Henry Fairlie who coined the term:

Fairlie had grown cynical about the higher echelons of British society and, one day in the autumn of 1955, he wrote a piece explaining why. What attracted his attention was a scandal involving two Foreign Office officials. Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean, who had defected to the Soviet Union. Fairlie suggested that friends of the two men had attempted to shield their families from media attention... This, he asserted, revealed that "what I can the 'establishment' in this country is today more powerful than ever before.

For Fairlie, the establishment included not only "the centres of official power- though they are certainly part of it"- but "the whole matrix of official and social relations within which power is exercised...This "exercise of power", he claimed, could only be understood as being "exercised socially". In other words, the establishment comprised a set of well-connected people who knew one another, mixed in the same circles and had one another's backs. It was not based on official, legal or formal arrangements, but rather on "subtle social relationships."

 But the more important point is that not only did the establishment offer protection to the likes of Philby, Burgess, and Maclean, but that they would make sure the three would, for as long as possible, remain impervious right up to the time of their ultimate exposure and defections. Certainly neither their drunken behaviour, homosexuality, communist past, or social slights had prevented their promotion.  Written in a witty and effortless style, A Spy Among Friends is one of some ten books written by Macintyre, all in one way or another about spooks and outsiders, including The Napoleon of Crime, about Adam Worth whom Macintyre calls the real Moriarty, and Agent Zig Zag, about Eddie Chapman, who was a WW2 MI5 spy, both of which sit atop a stack of books I'm looking forward to reading at some point in the not-so distant future.

Tuesday, August 05, 2014

Paperback Confidential- Crime Writers of the Paperback Era by Brian Ritt

Paperback Confidential, put together by Brian Ritt, is the latest and, in my opinion, the best encyclopaedia-reference book when it comes to paperback pulp writers. At least in English. Its cover recalls the heyday of the scandal sheet, Confidential, and shows the famous and the infamous, in this case, Chandler, Hammett, Highsmith, Goodis, Woolrich and Charles Williams. But there are many other writers inside the book's covers, some  well known, and some not so well known, like John Trinian, Malcolm Braly, Elisabeth Sanxay Holding and Benjamin Appel.  No, Ritt does include everyone. How could he? So there's no mention of writers like Mary Holland, Jay Thomas, George Milburn, Robert Ames, Vera Caspary, Robert Finnegan or Daniel Fuchs. Nevertheless, there's enough ammunition here to last a lifetime. Ritt includes,  under each writer's name, a biographical entry, as well as a bibliography, and writers one might also like, many of whom are not included in this book, which makes Ritt's volume even more expansive. My only criticism, other than the various noirists left out, would be that the cover misplaces the importance or, at any rate, the emphasis of the writers included, putting them in the category of scandalous rather than transgressive, political or subversive. But that's only a minor point, because,  if you're after an  overview of the genre, from the Depression the present, you'll want to get hold of Ritt's book.

While pouring through Paperback Confidential, I couldn't stop thinking about how much easier these days it is to find  information on writers of crime-noir fiction than when I was writing Pulp Culture in the mid-1990s. On the other hand, for me, tracking down information was  part of the fun of writing Pulp Culture, followed by Neon Noir and Heartbreak and Vine.  Though no doubt about it, had Ritt's volume been available, it would have made the writing of those books a much simpler process. But at the time there wasn't anything like it around, at least not in English. What was available was Geoffrey O'Brien's groundbreaking Hardboiled America, followed by a small handful of books over the following years. Like  Lee Server's Over My Dead Body and Danger Is My Business, followed a number of years later by Pulp Fiction Writers: the Essential Guide to More Than 200 Pulp Pioneers and Mass Market Masters. The latter not a bad book, but not nearly as comprehensive as Ritt's volume. Likewise, Arthur Lyon's Death on the Cheap. Not forgetting the essays in Gorman, Server and Greenberg's anthology The Big Book of Noir.

In the writing my books,  I mostly relied on information from French publications. I remember pouring over a copy of Les Ecrivains des Etats-Unis, 1800-1945, published by L'oeil in magazine format, and given away for free that I found in the window of a bookstore in Perpignan.  That must have been sometime around 1992. Then at that same bookstore, I saw and bought a copy of Mesplede and Schleret's Les Auteurs des Serie Noire: Voyage au bout de la Noire. That was just what I needed. That was followed, a decade later, by Mesplede's more comprehensive, and, for me, indispensable, Dictionaire des litteratures policers, in two volumes, published, as was Les Auteurs..., by Joseph K.  These days, with the likes of  Paperback Confidential, the relevant information has become fairly accessible. Likewise, the reprints of the novels themselves. No need to scour around secondhand stores. You can just sit in front of your computer and order all those rare books on the internet, albeit at inflated prices. Nor is there any need to learn a foreign language or travel to a foreign country to acquire some fairly routine information. No doubt one of the wonders of the modern world. Though, of course, something has been lost in the process. Still, if you want to keep up with the novels and their authors, Brian Ritt's Paperback Confidential is a good place to start.

Sunday, July 06, 2014

Do Not Sell At Any Price- The Wild, Obsessive Hunt for the World's Rarest 78 rpm Records by Amanda Petrusich

I  admit it, I'm a bit compulsive, particularly when it comes to vintage blues, early string band, jazz and country recordings. But to be honest, I've spent most of my adult life trying to avoid collecting 78s of those genres, because I know once into it, I'd never find a way out, and collecting would probably overtake my life as it has those of the collectors and anthologists Amanda Petrusich writes about in her excellent and highly readable book. No, I prefer to get the music in whatever form I can- 78s, 45s, LPs, CDs or MP3s. As the subtitle of her books states, Petrusich takes us into that strange world of the 78 collector. Deploying her own brand of populist, even chatty, prose, honed in periodicals like the New York Times, Atlantic and the Oxford American, and in her book It Still Moves: Lost Songs, Lost Highways, and the Search for the Next American Music, Petrusich tracks down the likes of John Heneghan, Chris King, Joe Bussard, Ian Nagoski, Richard Weize, as well as expounding on legendary collectors like  Harry Smith and James McKune. Not exactly household names, but well-known to those into the music and of interest to those who would like to be.

Amanda Petrusich
On a personal note, I'm glad I didn't read Petrusich's book  before writing  my novel Cry For a Nickel, Die For a Dime, which features a group of 78 blues collectors, one of whom is loosely based on the infamous and highly eccentric McKune. The fact is,  I've long been interested in 78 collectors, going back to a misspent youth hanging around places like the Ash Grove and  Don Brown's Jazz Man records in Los Angeles, where the likes of  John Fahey, Barry Hansen and Bob Hite would congregate to talk and plough through the new arrivals. I knew McKune's name batted around- heard that he was pretty weird, something of a recluse and so on, but didn't know much about him. That is until I read Mary Beth Hamilton's In Search of the Blues, in many ways a precursor to Petrusich's book, though the former concerns those who searched out rural blues singers, made field recordings, as well as those who collected the music. So while Hamilton's book was certainly an influence, had I read Do Not Sell... book before writing my novel, the two books together would have probably pushed my narrative in another direction altogether, albeit with a greater concentration on historical and discographical accuracy.

Of course, Petrusich and her pals are right when they say there's something special when it comes to listening to 78 rpm records. It's not only the time-travel element, but something about the sound itself, both intimate and unfiltered. Though I suspect this has something to do with concentration. That one naturally gives more attention to a single recording than to a string of recordings as when one listens to an LP or CD, where one's attention tends to dissipate over time. But that's technology for you, a factor that's played a part since the advent of the LP. I remember a critic in the 60s magazine Little Sandy Review saying one should listen to no more than three or four tracks of any blues artist on an LP at a time; otherwise it represents a false impression of how they would have presented their music to the public. Be that as it may, these days, as Petrusich points out, one can stick the entire Harry Smith Anthology into an MP3 player, and, with the shuffle mechanism, destroy any semblance of Smith's careful, if strange, sequencing. But, then, that was pretty much the case back when Columbia put out the Robert Johnson box set, which, when it appeared, disrupted the sequencing of earlier releases, which themselves were sequenced artificially. Which only shows that it's all artifice, from the moment a recording is made to the technology by which it reaches the listening public.

For me, Do Not Sell... is most interesting when the author talks to the collectors themselves- whom Petrusich likens to detectives and investigative journalists in their pursuit of their prey- and the music to which they are devoted. Of lesser interest are those moments  speculating about why people collect 78s. Nor is it all that astonishing to hear that collecting is a predominantly male pursuit. But I think Petrusich realises as much. Likewise, she can't quite convince herself that collecting might be a sign of a Obsessive Compulsive Disorder or Aspergers, concluding that, in most cases, it's simply an addiction, one that appeals to, or creates, eccentrics.

That such collectors have shaped our musical memory, if not our taste, is beyond doubt. But as Pestrusich points out, many of these collectors are blinkered when it comes to the value of more recently recorded music. As though cocooning themselves in a different time, and putting some distance between themselves and a music that, in many instances, was considered dangerous, will give them a degree of protection or take them back to a simpler, more comprehensible world. Petrusich wonders if in fifty years time the same sorts of people will be gathering to collect and listen to hip-hop, with time having turned it into something less threatening and subversiveness. Which is why it's refreshing when Petrusich comes across someone who can put the ethos of the collector in perspective. Ian Nagoski, responsible for the anthology To What Strange Place: The Music of the Ottoman-American Diaspora, 1916-1929, puts it this way: "Some people are just really good at listening to records... When you get to a certain level of knowledge, and can pass that along to people, that's really exciting and really beautiful...I see that in 78 collectors over and over again- they're dying to express, to someone..., how beautiful the whole thing is...[These] guys are definitely discontents in a Freud's Civilization and Its Discontents kind of way. They're looking at the world and seeing it as untenable. The world is sick. And yet here is this thing that affirms that there's something about it that's beautiful. But it's forgotten, or lost, or separate from day-to-day reality. But if you could put it back together, then you could reconstruct this gone world, this kind of life that was once worth living, make that into your own life, and then it would be okay or tolerable for you."

Though she searches for some kind of platonic ideal regarding collectors and the process of collecting, Petrusich never really finds it. After all, collecting is anything but objective, it criteria varying with each collector according to their idiosyncrasies. No point searching for such forms when it comes to aesthetics or the value of artifacts. They are what they are. The result is what our culture has made it, not what it could or should be. Petrusich can't be faulted for her search, even if she never quite determines whether those artifacts are the result of aberrant visions, whether they are culturally determined, or simply fixed by the woof and warp of character. This even though most of the anthologists, in contrast to Harry Smith, would seek to remove themselves from the context of their anthologies, as if that were possible. Anthologies are skewed regardless. Moreover, what is collectible (or anthologisable) these days is often be the converse of what was popular when first released. But, once again, so what?  If one likes Skip James- who certainly was an anomaly- one simply likes Skip James. One hopefully doesn't collect his records based on their popularity or lack of, or by their monetary value, not unless you value them simply as commodities.

So Do Not Sell is as much about Petrusich as it is about the records and the music. But her conversational tone and self-deprecating humour are used to great effect when it comes to describing the music and the listening experience, which helps make the book accessible to those who might not be familiar with the music. While I initially found her personal asides slightly annoying, such as the section in which she describes learning how to scuba dive in order to search for some Paramount 78s that might have been dumped in a river outside the company's pressing plant some eighty years ago. But in fact the episode is not only very funny, but exemplifies the extremes to which collectors, or would-be collectors, will go to get their hands on a box of priceless 78s. Moreover, it shows that the days of the neophyte getting in on collecting 78s are over, which means that Petrusich has to content herself with accompanying collectors as they track down records. 

Harry Smith as young hipster
Perhaps the most comprehensive section is the chapter on Harry Smith and his influential but never equalled 1952 Anthology of American Folk Music. Petrusich maintains the Anthology, with its esoteric sequencing and hermetic packaging, can be likened to an aural poem whose meaning constantly awaits discovery. She  wonders what it must have been like to have heard the Anthology fifty years ago, before MP3's,  Dylan, the Beatles, and all that followed, including the advent of meaning as such. I can try to answer her question, since I first heard the Anthology a bit over fifty years ago, and can say listening to it was a daunting experience and hard to comprehend  in its entirety, but at least it was free of the cultural baggage it has since acquired. Spurred on by listening to the New Lost City Ramblers, Doc Watson and Clarence Ashley, etc., I would diligently trek to the library to listen, one side at a time. When I finished, I went through it again and again. While the music has stayed with me, I never actually owned a copy until its reissue on CD in 1997. And even then, because of the hype that would surround it, I don't think I listened to it all that much. But while reading Petrusich's chapter,  I returned to the Anthology, and, not surprisingly, it sounds better than ever. That in itself is enough reason to read Petrusich's book. It's going to almost anyone hungry not so much for 78s-as-objects but for the music contained on those 78s. Sure, I would have liked the book to have been more hardcore in its pursuit of collectors and their records, but I doubt if  I was the reader it was aimed at. But even a hardened listener like myself couldn't help but be charmed by Petrusich's willingness to get to the music by any means necessary, whether learning to scuba dive or riding shot-gun with an assortment of shellac-junkies.     

Sunday, June 08, 2014

Another Noir Roundup: John Trinian, James Curtis, Malcolm Mackay, Owen Martell, Robert Wilson

The books have been piling up of late,  so, to assuage both guilt and laziness, this is going to be  another series of quickies. As usual, it's my favourite publisher, Stark House, that has come up with some of the most interesting books: reprints of Nude on Thin Ice/Memory of Passion by the always excellent pulpster Gil Brewer, and Nothing In Her Way/River Girl by the prolific regionalist Charles Williams. Though for me the biggest surprise and most intriguing title is their reissue of two novels by Gold Medal writer John Trinian, North Beach Girl coupled with Scandal of the Sand.

Trinian preferred the name Zekial Marko (though his real name was, in fact, Marvin Leroy Schmoker) and it was under Marko that he wrote for The Rockford Files, Mission Impossible, Kolchak, and Toma, a TV series that he also  helped create. As well as the film Once a Thief, starring Alain Delon, Ann Margaret and Jack Palance, adapted by Ralph Nelson from Trinian's novel  Scratch a Thief. There was even an earlier adaptation of the book made in France by Henri Verneuil, with a script by one of France's best, Michel Audiard (father of Jacques), with Delon and Jean Gabin entitled Melodie sous-sol, translated for English-speakers as Any Number Can Win.

Born in Salinas- Steinbeck was a neighbour- Trinian (1933-2008) spent most of his time in the Bay area, and, during the late 1950s, did a stretch as a bartender at a Sausalito waterhole called The Tin Angel. Just like a  character- the writer-bartender- out of a Don Carpenter novel. Trinian/Marko had quite a reputation at the time, not all of it laudatory. Nevertheless, pulp pundit Rick Ollerman calls him "one of the most realistic of the Gold Medal writers." Indeed, both North Beach Girl (1960) and his final Gold Medal novel Scandal on the Sand (1964) read like minor classics. The latter concerns  a dozen characters brought together by whale stranded on a local beach, while the former revolves around the usual mix of drugs, sex and alcohol, here with a cast that includes Erin, a young female protagonist, an ambitious lesbian and an artist who wants to paint her. After all, it's the hipster world of Bay Area beatnik bohemia: "Who the hell wanted to work. Working got you nowhere. It was just like voting. Your one lousy vote didn't really count. The system wouldn't collapse if you voted against it. So why try? Why work? No matter what job you were performing, the system wouldn't care if you walked out on it. There would always be another sucker to take your place. And Erin had had jobs enough to uphold her way of thinking. Carhop, waitress, usherette, receptionist, cocktail waitress, file clerk, and now artists' model. She had walked out on them  all at one time or another. And no one had missed her. Life had been able to stagger on without her shoulder to the wheel. So, all jobs were the same. She hated them. And now she had had her fill of them and she would do absolutely nothing. And perhaps, while her money lasted, she would be able to figure out a way to be done weigh working for good."

Also included in Trinian volume is an excellent introduction by pulp honcho Ollerman,  an afterward by Trinian's daughter, the artist Belle Marko, and a mid-volume remembrance by the novelist Ki Longfellow who, as a teenager, was Trinian's  soul-mate, who went on to become Vivian "Bonzo Dog" Stanshall's partner. Trinian, and, a second or two earlier, Longfellow, appear in the film's trailer:

The equivalent of Stark House in the UK would probably be London Books Classics. In the past they've published novels by such London working class writers as Robert Westerby, Gerald Kersh, Simon Blumenfield, John Sommerfield and James Curtis. Their most recent is Curtis's There Ain't No Justice. Curtis (1907-1977) has long been one of my favourites with novels like The Gilt Kid, which I've written about before, and, of course, the classic They Drive By Night. There Ain't No Justice is a boxing novel- arguably one of the best- that explores the underworld surrounding that sport in pre-war London, and its effect on a kid from the slums of West London. As usual, Curtis's characters deploy the  language, syntax and slang of the working class. In lesser hands, that might come off as clumsy or cliché-ridden, but here it sounds exactly right. Curtis hung out in  Soho watering holes with the likes of Gerald Kersh and Robert Westerby, as well as various poets and painters.  Like They Drive By Night, There Ain't No Justice was adapted for the screen by Pen Tennyson, though not quite as successfully. Still here's a YouTube clip from the opening scene from Tennyson's 1939 adaptation. If you like bleak settings, boxing, and working class London, you won't be disappointed by this one.

Fast forward to contemporary Glasgow. These days British crime pundits all seem to be talking about Malcolm Mackay, whose A Sudden Arrival of Violence (Pan) is the latest and last novel in his Glasgow trilogy. And one can see why.  All three novels explore the city's criminal underworld, and its various characters, and they do with no small amount of flair and fluidity. What I also find interesting is that Mackay, who hails from Stornoway, purposely ignores the most obvious manifestations of the region he's writing about. In contrast to Curtis, there is, other than the locale, little in these books that could be specifically thought of as Glaswegian. In fact,  there's a universality and matter-of-factness to Mackay writing that makes me think of someone like J.G. Ballard. At the same time, his prose is as crisp and tight as a Black Mask or Gold Medal author. I would say this is definitely a young writer to watch if he hadn't already written two excellent, and dark, novels, How a Gunman Says Goodbye and The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter. And he has a fourth novel, The Night the Rich Men Burned, on the way.

If, like me, you have a weakness for jazz novels, you'll want to have a look at Owen Martell's Intermission (Windmill). It opens with the Bill Evans Trio playing those historic dates at the Village Vanguard in New York, in June, 1961. Not long after which Evans' bass player, the great Scott LeFaro is killed in a car accident. Intermission explores the effect of LeFaro's death on Evans. It's the kind of novel that only an outsider could write. From South Wales, Martell is able to create an evocative, if subdued, atmosphere, as he explores Evans' character over the months following LeFaro's death- which constitutes the intermission of the title. Though, for me, there was something about the novel- perhaps it's the over-romanticisation of this particular subject- that made the novel the less than the sum of its parts. But perhaps that's unavoidable. Over-romanticism seems to be an occupational hazard,  particularly for outsiders. Still,  readable jazz novels are hard to come by. From the very start, Martell's book  reminded me  of a novel I read in French some years ago by Christian Gailly entitled Un Soir au Club (Editions Minuit) about the Evans trio playing a small club in a provincial French town, a laudable attempt which fell short of the mark. Martell's book, which could be thought of as picking up where Gailly's book left off,  is, despite its faults,  a more complete and satisfying work.

If you like complex, fast action spy novels based on a fair amount of research, Wilson's latest, The Whitehall Mandarin (Arcadia), will definitely interest you. An American who served in Vietnam as a Special Forces Officer, then moved  to England, after which he renounced his US citizenship, Wilson has written four previous spy novels. His latest moves from the late 1940s to the late 1960s, and, for the most part, centres on Lady Somers, who, in this novel, happens to be the first female to head the Ministry of Defence. It also brings spooks from previous Wilson novels, as it moves through the Cold War, into  the swinging 60s, the Profumo affair, the Bay of Pigs, Malaya, Vietnam, and China's growing importance on the world's stage. I was completely engrossed until the pace picked up to such a degree that I found it hard to keep my disbelief sufficiently suspended. It's just that there are just too many events of earthshaking importance.  Nevertheless, there are some great moments, and Wilson has certainly done his research, throwing in any number of real personalities from the era, to the degree that I found myself  googling various names with some surprising results. Wilson is in the Ambler, Furst, McCarry, Le Carré category, though not as subtle as the latter two, nor as controlled as the former two. More like a espionage-equivalent of James Ellroy, with a scatter-gun approach, though without Ellroy's manic style and mannerisms. Though I'll no doubt dip into his earlier novels, this one, however entertaining, illustrates the adage that less is often best.