Tag Archives: american crime fiction

I Married a Dead Man: Cornell Woolrich (1948)

Helen, 8 months pregnant, penniless and abandoned, boards the sleeper train. She’s hit rock bottom, and fruitless attempts to contact the father of her child result only in an envelope containing a 5 dollar bill and a one-way ticket from New York to San Francisco. Even though there’s no note, the message is clear.

Once on the train, she meets a young couple, happy, very much in-love, Patrice and Hugh Hazzard, who are travelling to Hugh’s family. They’ve yet to meet Patrice. Patrice is also pregnant, and stuck travelling in an over-crowded train together, Patrice generously befriends Helen. Even though Helen doesn’t share her story, it’s clear that she’s down on her luck. A terrible accident occurs, and Patrice, Hugh and their unborn baby are killed while Helen survives. Thanks to the fact that Helen had tried on, and was still wearing Patrice’s ring when the accident happened, Helen wakes up in hospital and discovers that due to a mix-up everyone thinks she’s Patrice.

I married a dead man

Helen isn’t a bad person, and she doesn’t intentionally set out to deceive anyone. But Hugh’s parents have arranged for a private room for the daughter-in-law (now with a baby) they never met. Along with the private room come flowers and baskets of fruit. With just 17 cents to her name, Helen, drugged up to the eyeballs, finds it easier to go along with the case of mistaken identity.

But one thing leads to another, and Helen is taken to the Hazzard home. Surrounded with the loving, affluent family Helen doesn’t have, she goes along with the deception mainly for her son’s sake. Soon she’s in so deep, it’s impossible to say where this will end. Hugh’s parents have already been devastated by their son’s death, but they carry on knowing that they have a grandson. The story isn’t just about Helen anymore: she has other people to consider–people who will be brokenhearted again.

It’s not easy to step into someone else’s shoes and Helen makes a couple of errors; no one seems to notice–except for Hugh’s brother Bill who isn’t as blinded by grief as his parents. Then the louse who abandoned pregnant Helen, smelling money, reappears like a wolf hunting his prey.

The book starts slowly and it’s not until chapter 4 and the train trip that things take off, but then the book takes shape. In this noir tale, Helen’s life looks bleak but then Fate takes a hand with the death of Patrice, Hugh and their baby. Helen steps into Patrice’s shoes, but it’s an uneasy existence, and it seems just a matter of time before events comes crashing down on Helen. And Fate seems to deal Helen a cruel hand once again–giving her what she thought she wanted back in New York.

And here’s a fantastic quote about Fate–always central to noir:

What makes you stop, when you have stopped, just where you have stopped? What is it, what? Is it something, or is it nothing? Why not a yard short, why not a yard more? Why just there, where you are, and nowhere else?

Some say: It’s just blind chance, and if you hadn’t stopped there, you would have stopped at the next place. Your story would have been different then. You weave your own story as you go along.

But others say: You could not have stopped any place else but this even if you wanted to. It was decreed, it was ordered, you were meant to stop at this spot, and no other. Your story is there waiting for you, it has been waiting for you there a hundred years, long before you were born, and you cannot change a comma of it. Everything you do, you have to do. You are the twig, and the water you float on swept you here. You are the leaf and the breeze you were borne on blew you here. This is your story, and you cannot escape it; you are only the player, not the stage manager. Or so some say.

For this reader, Helen isn’t a particularly interesting character, but the plot is fantastic; when we meet Helen, she’s beaten down by life. The train wreck appears to flip Helen’s fortunes, but it seems unsavoury that anyone would profit from the death of a young married couple and their unborn child. Helen is never comfortable with the deception, she’s not a grifter looking for an easy buck–she’s waiting for the ax to drop. Again. 

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Four Novellas of Fear: Cornell Woolrich

The collection Four Novellas of Fear from Cornell Woolrich is aptly named. Woolrich creates four domestic scenarios that tap into primal terror. Here’s the line-up

Eyes That Watch You

The Night I Died

You’ll Never See Me Again

Murder Always Gathers Momentum

Eyes That Watch You is the story of a paralyzed wheelchair bound woman who overhears her daughter-in-law, Vera, plotting to murder her son. Without the power of speech and unable to move, she is helpless to stop the crime. Given the woman’s incapacity, this is a story that in other hands could have lacked tension, but it’s the pure callous savagery of the plotters that knocks a powerful punch:

Just see that he soaks up enough, and you can bet all the oxygen in the world won’t pull him through. Watch his face. When that gets good and blue, all mottled, you got nothing more to worry about. 

For me, The Night I Died was the weakest of the bunch. This is the story of a married man who goes from marriage and dead-end job to murder, insurance scam and stolen identity all in one night:

The point about me is: that I should stay on the right side of the fence all those years, and then when I did go over, go over heart and soul like I did–all in the space of one night. In one hour, you might say.

I liked the story’s premise: a married man comes home unexpectedly from work and finds his wife plotting his murder. Nice. Things go downhill from there. The narrator/husband’s decisions seemed a little implausible given that he can’t trust his wife to the slightest degree. Murder is one way to end life, but handing it over to someone you can’t trust is another.

Four novellas of fear

You’ll Never See Me Again is the longest story in the book, and again Woolrich taps into a primal fear when he creates a nightmarish situation involving a missing wife. Newlyweds argue about the wife’s baking and she takes off into the night and disappears . …

Murder Always Gathers Momentum is the story of Paine, a married man who goes to his boss to claim his wages. The encounter ends in murder and murder having been done once… This story shows Woolrich’s skill at pacing for the tale seems to speed up with each murder as Paine rushes towards his violent fate. 

My favorite was Eyes That Watch You. Woolrich really ramps up the fear factor with this tale. It’s terrifying to imagine being paralyzed but even more terrifying to be paralyzed, overhear a plot to murder your child and be unable to stop it. ….

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Wild Town: Jim Thompson (1957)

Jim Thompson’s tale of corruption,  Wild Town feels like a much earlier novel than The Killer Inside Me which was published 5 years earlier in 1952. The Killer Inside Me remains one of my favourite  Thompson novels, while Wild Town doesn’t feel as mature, as polished and certainly not as dark. Yet both novels feature Lou Ford. It was actually somewhat surreal to read about Wild Town‘s Lou Ford while The Killer Inside Me‘s Lou Ford lurked in my memory, but enough of that; onto the plot.

Wild town

The Wild Town of the title is a Texas oil boom town with Lou Ford as the local chief deputy sheriff. It’s the sort of place where men are expected to get drunk and get into fights, so local law enforcement is more about limiting damage.  The town itself is rowdy and not built for permanence. “Practically all the structures were temporary–built as cheaply as possible and as quickly as possible.” The town’s one hotel, the Hanlon Hotel, is a fourteen storey building where everyone turns a blind eye to various shenanigans. It’s hardly a respectable joint, but it’s not a fleabag hotel either. And this is where our main character Bugs McKenna comes in.

McKenna is fresh out of prison. His life story is a series of missteps, and he’s aware that one more mistake will land him in prison for the rest of his life. He arrives in town and is promptly thrown in jail, but then a strange thing happens. The sheriff, Lou Ford points him towards a job as the house detective at the Hanlon Hotel.

McKenna, who is used to being labelled as a jailbird, distrusts Lou Ford’s friendly, good ‘ol boy manner. (So did I.)

He was about thirty, the chief deputy. He wore a pinkish-tan shirt, with a black, clip-on bowtie, and blue serge pants. The cuffs of the trousers were tucked carelessly into the top of his boots. In Bug’s book, he stacked up about the same-in appearance-as any county clown.

His black, glossy hair was combed in a straight-back pompadour. His high-arched brows gave his face a droll, impish look. A long thin cigar was clamped between his teeth.

McKenna takes the job, and he finds that he likes having security, likes being able to shower and shave, and likes the hot coffee brought to his room every morning. The job, however, is not without its problems: first someone is stealing money from the hotel, and then the owner’s sexually rapacious wife, Joyce is determined to seduce McKenna.

While the plot sounds good, the book has its flaws. McKenna and Ford are both interesting creations but I found it impossible not to connect ‘this’ Ford with the Ford of The Killer Inside Me (a far superior novel). Also, there are a couple of bellboys who are cartoonish, and then there’s a lot of good-ol boy hee-haw slang going on which gets annoying after a while. I’d consider this a lesser Jim Thompson, so if you haven’t read any, I’d suggest you start elsewhere. Still if you’re a die-hard Thompson fan, you won’t be able to resist:

“Aw, heck. Gosh all fish-hooks. Gee willikers,” drawled Ford. “and here we-all thought we had you fooled.” 

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Lemons Never Lie: Donald Westlake (1971)

Lemons Never Lie is written by Donald Westlake using his Richard Stark pseudonym. That means it’s not one of Westlake’s funny ones; it’s harder, tougher, meaner.

The lemons in the title refer to slot machine lemons, and when actor/thief Grofield flies into Vegas to listen to a pitch about a heist, the very first thing he does on terra firma is to go to the closest slot, put in a nickel, and pull the handle. Three lemons flip onto the screen. Yes three lemons. According to Grofield, “Lemons never lie,” and three lemons on the slot machine signal bad luck. He should have turned around and got onto the next plane back to Indiana, but he didn’t, and that’s what this tale is all about: bad luck, fate and revenge.

Lemons never lie

Grofield meets a man called Myers in a hotel on the strip. They’re joined by a handful of other crooks and Myers (accompanied by a bodyguard) explains a heist he plans.  Myers, a “blowhard,” exudes a bad vibe. Grofield who runs a theatre in Indiana which doesn’t pay the bills, needs the money badly, but when he hears that the badly conceived plan includes murdering several people, he backs out–as does acquaintance Dan Leach, another crook who invited Grofield to attend the meeting.

“No,” said Grofield.

Myers stopped mid-sentence, his hand dipping down for yet another photo or map or graph. He blinked. “What?”

“I said no. Don’t tell me any more of it, I’m out.”

Myers frowned; he couldn’t understand it. “What’s the matter, Grofield?”

“Killing,” Grofield said.

“They’ve got a half a dozen armed guards in there,” Myers said. “There’s absolutely no other way to get past them.”

“I believe you. That’s why I’m out.”

Myers looked sardonic. “You really that kind, Grofield? Sight of blood bother you?”

“No, it’s more the sight of cops. The law looks a lot harder for a killer than it does for a thief. Sorry, Myers, but you can count me out.”

Leach wins big at the tables that night, but then Grofield and Leach are later mugged. Grofield managed to ID Myers and his bodyguard as the culprits, but Myers disappears while the body guard is in the hotel room with his throat cut.

At this point, Grofield knows to get out of Vegas fast, and since the popular phrase is “what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas,” he flies home thinking he’ll never cross paths with Myers again. …

He’s wrong.

This is a dark, mean tale that begins with an omen of bad luck and then weaves a savage twisted thread. To add more to the plot would spoil the read that awaits Westlake fans. The novel brings up the issue of crooks working with other crooks: who do you trust? Sooner or later you’re going to run into psychos, egomaniacs, and sadists, and then what do you do? For its emphasis on the inescapable nature of fate, I’d file this under noir. 

(This book is number 4 in the Alan Grofield series)

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Rendezvous in Black: Cornell Woolrich

“For me, she thought wryly, but without complaint, all life is a tunnel; a long, never-ending tunnel, which has no other end.”

Cornell Woolrich’s Rendezvous in Black is a relentlessly bleak, cold, dark tale of revenge. Its powerful, ceaseless bleakness resides in a killer’s uncompromising mission: revenge yes, but it’s revenge involving innocents and driven by complete mercilessness.

It’s May the 31st, and Johnny Marr is waiting outside of a drugstore in the town square, as he does every night, for his long-time girlfriend Dorothy. Dorothy and Johnny have been in love since the ages of 7 and 8; they’ve always been a couple, and they cannot imagine a world in which the other does not exist. Lack of money led to them putting off their wedding for years, but now the date is planned. It will be a June wedding:

They would have been married long ago; last June, the June before, the very first June that he was a man and she was grown up girl. Why hadn’t they? What’s the one thing that always interferes, more than any other? Money. First no job at all. Then a job so small it wasn’t even big enough for one, let alone for two. 

The work-related death of Johnny Marr’s father led to a small pay-off from the railroad. It’s not much money and by the time the lawyer takes almost half, it’s even less, but it’s still enough for Johnny and Dorothy to set a date.

The book’s first pages establish several main themes: there’s the unexpected consequences of murder and how one person’s callous indifference ricochets throughout the universe. The idea of wasted time is another theme which is juxtaposed, in intriguing contrast, with timelessness. Other characters in the book struggle with the fact that they’ve ‘wasted’ time, and also time plays a huge role in the crimes. Another main theme is the powerless of the individual when faced with Big Business or dazzling wealth. The small man will always stay small and powerless because that’s the way the world is organised. Money rises up; it doesn’t trickle down. The fact that Johnny’s father was killed through negligence, has allowed a few thousand to come Johnny’s way. Yes the money was almost split 50:50 with the lawyer, but to Johnny, the money is a miracle. Finally, Johnny, an “average” man, an underdog, has managed to move ahead a little in the world and finally he can marry Dorothy.

But in this noir novel, fate intervenes and snatches Dorothy away in a freak accident. At first Johnny just hangs around in the town square, still waiting for Dorothy. A little kindness is occasionally shown to Johnny but he becomes a curiosity and then a spectacle. Finally a cop “brutally” tells Johnny to move on, and with a few pokes of the nightstick, Johnny ambles off:

Maybe the cop should have let him stand there, should have let him alone. He hadn’t been hurting anybody , until then.  

Johnny Marr, driven insane by grief, assumes various identities and finds out who is ‘responsible’ (in his mind) for Dorothy’s death. He draws up a death list. On May 31st of each year, one by one, a man whose name is on the list will lose the woman he loves the most: a wife, a mistress, a girlfriend, a daughter … it doesn’t matter to Johnny who the victims are as long as their deaths causes irreparable damage to the men left behind: they will feel the same pain that he endures.

Detective Cameron, another unassuming, almost invisible man, realizes that something isn’t right when the first death occurs. By the third, he knows he’s on the trail of a maniac who has a death list. He doesn’t know the identity of the killer; the only thing he knows for certain is that the next death will occur on the 31st.

Money only has power over the sane mind. Maniacs don’t have motives. I could call it revenge, but even that wouldn’t be correct, because where the injury has been unintentional or unknowing, revenge can be reasoned with, turned aside. About the closest I can get to it would be a revenge-mania.

Woolrich eases us into the darkness easily at first. The first murder is fait accompli, and the second murder with its unexpected consequences form their own sort of rough justice. But the subsequent crimes are malicious, evil and enacted with maximum cruelty. I’m not talking gore here–I’m talking about cold, calculated vicious retribution calculated to cause maximum suffering. The novel is particularly bleak when considering that 5 people who had nothing to do with Dorothy’s death  but who are connected with 5 men (ONE of whom MAY be responsible) will pay the ultimate price. Unlike Fate, Marr’s retribution isn’t random; it’s directed and deliberate, forming its own nihilistic ball of hate, taking aim at innocents. Nonetheless, the cosmic unfairness of Johnny’s selection and relentless pursuit mirrors Fate in a distorted, warped way.

My Modern Library copy includes a bio of Woolrich as well as a brief section describing the relationship Woolrich had with a woman that mirrors Marr’s (without all the murders):

A “sense of isolation, of pinpointed and transfixed helplessness under the stars, of being left alone, unheard, and unaided to face some final fated darkness and engulfment slowly advancing across the years towards me .. that has hung over me all my life.”

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Fugitive Red: Jason Starr

“Choosing another path in life doesn’t necessarily solve your problems–sometimes it just leads to a new set of them.”

Forty-four-year old real estate agent Jack Harper, a recovering alcoholic, is in a rut. His professional life is at an all-time low, and his marriage to Maria is stale and sexless. He hasn’t landed any sales in some time, and when Rob, a former bandmate, flies in from California looking to buy a two million dollar Manhattan penthouse apartment, Jack’s failure is rubbed in his face. Rob, a practiced womanizer, sniffs Jack’s failure and lords his success over his old friend’s head, but more significantly, he mentions that he uses an online dating app called Discreet Hookups, a “Cheating site” which is “the best thing for married men since Monday Night Football.” While Jack feels disgust at his old friend’s behaviour, there’s another part of him that envies Rob’s brash confidence and material success.

Late one night, bored and restless, Jack logs onto Discreet Hookups, the website whose logo is: “people marry for companionship, cheat for happiness.”  Jack tells himself he’s led by curiosity, but he has a past of addictive behaviour, so it’s just a very short step until he has an online profile and connects with a wealthy married woman who calls herself Fugitive Red. …

Jason Starr’s Fugitive Red takes an insightful look at the perils of online relationships, adeptly navigating the narrative of Jack’s rapidly unraveling life. Online, we can be anyone we want to be, and when sex and/or money enter the picture, things go downhill fast. Most of us know people who have had exploitative disastrous online relationships, and Jack is a great fictional example. Soon he’s accused of murder, and while Jack thought his life was bad before his exposure to Discreet Hookups, he finds out how bad gets worse. With his life spiraling out of control, he still imagines he has options which have long since been removed from the table. There’s a morbid sense of humour at work as we watch Jack, who can’t quite accept that things are as bad as they are, missteps repeatedly in the quicksand of a murder investigation.

The plot, peopled with colourful characters, explores the hazards of misinterpreting virtual life on the computer as reality, and there are times when Jack has insight into his own ego and addictive behaviour, but these times are alternated with his blind spots. Here’s Jack being grilled by the detective who will soon become his arch-nemesis:

Then he added,” I don’t want to say you’re gullible, Mr Harper, but okay, I’ll say it–you’re gullible. I mean, you meet some chick online, she says she wants to screw around, and you think she’s telling you the truth?”

“She wasn’t ‘some chick,’ ” I said. “She was a sweet, sincere woman, and yes, I believed her.” 

“Just like you believed it was her first time meeting a guy online.”

Jason Starr’s novels often include some reference to New York housing, and how outrageous costs impact life and relationships, so here we find Jack living in a 580 sq foot apartment and wondering if he should have moved to the ‘burbs. I thought I knew where Fugitive Red was taking me, but it had more twists than I anticipated, and since it’s Jason Starr, these twists are laced with deviant behaviour.

The book synopsis includes a reference to Gone Girl, and if you arrive at this book expecting another Gone Girl, you will be disappointed. This is classic Jason Starr, which means a different set of things from Gone Girl, and I wish publishers would stop referencing this book as though it’s the bible of suspense. Frankly while Gone Girl was highly readable, by its conclusion, I was annoyed at the plot devices.

Rant over.

If you are a Jason Starr fan, you will not be disappointed. There’s a lot to appreciate here in the insights into human behaviour: the lies we tell ourselves, the types of horrible relationships we endure, the disappointment of how our lives turned out, and how tricky, deceptive and seductive online ‘relationships’ can be–and yes those online relationships just happen to slot into all of life’s shortcomings.  Psychologists argue that first impressions take just a few seconds. How does that translate to online relationships? Jack’s impressions of Fugitive Red are formed and sealed before he meets her, and that proves to be a deadly mistake.

Review copy

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Life Sentences: Laura Lippman

Cassandra Fallows, soon to be 50 years-old, has two immensely popular, best-selling memoirs under her belt. The first, “My Father’s Daughter,” reveals her childhood, youth, and ends with the failure of her first marriage. The second book, “The Eternal Wife” tells how Cassandra’s second marriage went down the toilet, flushed with innumerable extramarital affairs. So fast forward to Cassandra’s third book: this one is fiction and it’s not selling well. Everyone connected with Cassandra urges her to return to non-fiction as that seems to be her forte.

Life sentences

Cassandra happens to catch a news story which refers to a crime that occurred decades before involving Calliope Jenkins, Cassandra’s former classmate, an afro-american woman whose baby disappeared. Since Calliope’s first child was removed by Child Protective Services previously, the baby’s disappearance, along with Calliope’s history of drug use, takes on sinister overtones. Calliope refused to talk, and the baby was never found. Calliope served 7 years in prison and was subsequently released. Cassandra’s next book begins to form in her head–not exactly “true crime” as she explains:

I don’t know what I’m writing, but there’s clearly a story there. She was one of us once. Not part of our gang, but a classmate. I want to figure out how the path deviates, how we end up in middle age, safe and snug, and she flounders so horribly.

So New York based Cassandra returns to her old stomping grounds, Baltimore, to uncover “the accidents of fate, the choices and temptations we faced.” Soon Cassandra is contacting former classmates: Donna, Tisha and Fatima. To complicate matters Donna is now married to Tisha’s brother who was Calliope’s one-time lawyer. Cassandra also tries to talk to Calliope’s first lawyer, the flinty Gloria, and Teena, the detective who worked on Calliope’s case. People connected with the case were forever tainted by it and the buzz is:

That case, it’s like a curse, isn’t it? Like something you’d see in an old movie.

Memory, truth and perception lie at the heart of this novel. I’ve read several Lippman titles, and Life Sentences is the most impressive. Cassandra has ‘bared all’ in her memoirs, but those memoirs are written according to her perceptions. She may have written ‘her story,’ but when she includes other people as bit players, some are offended. According to Cassandra’s childhood friend, Tisha, Cassandra “thought everything was about her. She’s incapable of telling a story where she’s not at the center.”

While on one level, Life Sentences is about what happened to Calliope Jenkins’ baby, it’s really about the stories we tell–the stories we tell ourselves, our interpretations of events. Those stories can remain safely in our heads, but when we air them to other people, especially other people who may ‘appear’ in those stories, the ‘truth’ slides into parallel, yet deviating, narratives. At one point, for example Cassandra finds herself questioning whether or not a publisher truly doesn’t remember meeting her (and turning down her first book) or whether he’s just trying to save face.

Early in the book, a woman attends one of Cassandra’s readings and asks why she gets to tell a story involving real people, and that is yet another issue that floats to the surface of this multi-layered novel: why should Cassandra tell Calliope’s story? How can she possibly do that? There are many times when Cassandra tries to pull Calliope from the fog of her childhood memories, and it’s clear that she did not know Calliope as other than a figure in the same room. Cassandra may have bared her own life to public exposure, but even then it’s through a lens of her construction. Does she have the moral right to co-opt Calliope’s story?

A middle-aged, twice divorced white Cassandra returning to her old stomping grounds and meeting her former Afro-American friends makes for fascinating reading. While Cassandra set out to tell Calliope’s story–whatever that may be–she runs headlong into what happened to several other women who were connected to Calliope’s case.

The solution to the mystery was the least satisfactory part of this otherwise interesting, highly readable book. The novel is populated with memorable characters including Calliope’s first lawyer, “famously, riotously deliberately seedy,” Gloria, former detective Teena, “if this was what pretty could become, what age could take away from you,” now permanently damaged physically and mentally who still considers the Calliope Jenkins case her ‘bête noire,’ and Cassandra’s philandering father, her “psychic tar pit,” a man who shapes his infidelities into a palatable narrative and massive love story.

Ignore the cover. It does the book no favours.

(The book includes a note from the author in which she explains that the Calliope Jenkins case is loosely based on a real crime.)

TBR stack.

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The Last Stand: Mickey Spillane & Max Allan Collins

“You on your lunch break?”

Her eyebrows lifted. “If so, I’m drinking it.” 

Hard Case Crime continues to mine gems from some of the greatest names in detective fiction. March 2018 brought a two-fer: A Bullet for Satisfaction and The Last Stand. A Bullet for Satisfaction was edited and completed by Max Alan Collins, Spillane’s long-time friend, while The Last Stand is Spillane’s final novel.

A Bullet for Satisfaction‘s appropriate title follows disgraced, ex-cop Dexter as he digs deep into the dirt surrounding the  murder of a married politician in a hotel room.

Mayes Rogers was a big name in politics around here-he’d made it to the top, and on the way ruined quite a few. A lot of people would have liked to see him put underground, and maybe they had good reasons.

I pulled out a cigarette, stuck the flame of my lighter to it, and drew in the smoke.

We’re in solid Spillane territory here. Dexter meets the grieving widow and her shapely sister, and offends local politicians as he investigates a case that stinks of corruption. Spillane books, for fans of the hard-boiled detective fiction, are great fun but then there are also watershed moments of brief, sudden brutality: those instances when we are jerked from our enjoyment into the reality of the darker side of human nature.

The Last Stand, written at the end of Spillane’s long writing career, has a completely different pace, with an adventure-focused plot. Pilot Joe Gillian finds himself stranded in the desert when he’s forced to make an emergency landing in his ancient plane. The tale involves Native Americans, the FBI, with a few gangsters thrown into the mix. Naturally, there has to be a beautiful woman–in this instance it’s a Native American wincingly named,  Running Fox.

Of the two, I preferred A Bullet for Satisfaction. I’m much more comfortable with hard-boiled detective tales of the 40s and 50s, and perhaps a great deal of that enjoyment comes with the idea that Spillane’s pugnacious male characters drank hard liquor for lunch and breakfast, fought crime and corruption to the bitter, bloody end, and loved women with lingering regret and the knowledge that they’d already moved on. Maybe it’s a Bogart thing.

Review copy

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Sunburn: Laura Lippman

“If only you knew what it means to walk away from something, what it takes.”

Laura Lippman’s standalone novel, Sunburn begins in 1995 when two strangers, Adam and Polly, meet in a bar in Belleville, a small town in Delaware. Their meeting seems accidental and innocent enough, but is it? After dumping her husband and child and hitching a ride, Polly finds herself in this dead-end town, while Adam claims to be passing through. He is attracted to this prickly redhead, and she doesn’t seem to mind the attention. Adam, who claims he has a few months to kill before moving on, decides to stay in Belleville and begins working in the same bar as Polly.

And why is she here, sitting on a barstool, forty-five miles inland, in a town where strangers seldom stop on a Sunday evening? Belleville is the kind of place where people are supposed to pass through and soon they won’t even do that. 

As the plot unfolds, it’s apparent that Adam and Polly are lying about who they really are and about their intentions. …

And why is she here? Does her husband know where she is? Does the husband know anything? Why did she leave him? And her little girl, how does that work? Feral his client says of her. No capacity for genuine emotion. She’s out for herself, always.

“Whatever you do,” his client says, “don’t turn your back on her.” Then he chuckles in an odd way. “Even face-to-face, you might not be safe with that one.”

Although the two central characters are introduced immediately, and we know their innermost thoughts, the controlled narrative keeps us at a distance, parceling out slivers of information at a time. Just as we come to know the real reason for Adam’s interest in Polly, we also begin to understand exactly what Polly is running from.

sunburn

And yet, even though we discover elements to Polly’s past that might create some sympathy… there’s a lot about Polly that sends shivers down the spine. She’s cold, hard, and calculating and uses men to get what she wants.

The goal is never a man. Never. Men are the stones she jumps to, one after another, toward the goal.

There’s a murder in Polly’s past and very possibly another looming in her future. In creating Polly who is clearly fashioned as a noir femme fatale (think Phyllis Dietrichson), Lippman takes chances, and yet she succeeds admirably in her noir archetype creations. Polly is not a woman who’s easy to warm to–although Adam certainly charges in–despite many warnings. With Polly as the reptilian, intriguing femme fatale, that leaves Adam as the gullible male, well one of them, at least.

You have to be willing to leave some doors closed, to focus on the task at hand. Some people are like rabbit holes and you can fall a long, long way down if you go too far.

Lippman has written a range of crime fiction, and Sunburn is a far darker read than the Tess Monaghan novels.

Review copy

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Help I Am Being Held Prisoner: Donald Westlake (1974)

‘That’s Künt with an umlaut’ explains Harold Künt, the main character of Donald Westlake’s lively, entertaining novel Help I Am Being Held Prisoner, but no matter how many times Harold protests the pronunciation of his name, he’s doomed to be called … well you can figure it out.

Having his last name mispronounced is just one of Harold’s problems. A bigger problem is that he’s serving time in prison for a practical joke that went wrong (you have to read the book to find out what he did).  Harold’s intentions may have been humour, but it’s no joke when he find himself locked up in prison and warned to avoid the showers when the Joyboys are there.

But wait … when Harold finds himself working in prison alongside the Joyboys, they seem like decent fellows and they befriend him. They can’t be that bad, can they?

Think of the idea of An Innocent Abroad, well Harold Künt is An Innocent Inside. Yes he is guilty of a thoughtless prank, but he isn’t a criminal as such. Thrown in with hardened criminals, Harold very quickly gets in too deep, but since his life depends on going along with the programme, he must survive by his wits. After all, ‘Snitches get stitches.’

Help I am being held prisoner

If you like the humorous novels of Donald Westlake, then you will enjoy Help I am Being Held Prisoner from Hard Case Crime. Harold is an entertaining, likable narrator, and it’s fun to go along for the ride in this well-paced blend of crime and humour.

“I think it’s beautiful,” I said.

“You want in?”

Later I would have more than one occasion to give that question deep thought, but at the moment it was asked I considered none of the implications; such as, for instance, the criminal nature both of the act and of my new companions. I was outside the wall, it was as simple as that. “I want in,” I said.

“There’s maybe more to it than you know right now,” he said. “I got to tell you that.”

The tiniest of warning lights went on at the end of some cul-de-sac of my head, but I was looking the other way. “I don’t care,” I said. “Besides, what’s the alternative?”

This is the first of 4 rediscovered novels from Donald Westlake scheduled to be published by Hard Case Crime

Review copy

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