Tag Archives: american crime fiction

Case of the Vanishing Beauty: Richard Prather (1950)

“She looked hotter than a welder’s torch and much, much more interesting.”

Strip for Murder gave me so many laughs, I knew it wouldn’t be long before I returned to another Shell Scott mystery from Richard Prather. Case of the Vanishing Beauty is the first in the series, and why not go back to the beginning?

case of the vanishing beauty

Shell Scott is hired by a young woman named Georgia to find her missing sister, Tracy. For mysterious reasons she refuses to discuss, she insists that he accompany her to a nightclub, a “Mexican dive” called “El Cuchillo.” The floor shows aren’t that hot until knife thrower, Miguel and his shapely partner, Lina start their routine. Shell has eyes for Lina:

She was slim. but with hips that were amply high, full breasts that she was careless about but nobody else ever would be.

Shell isn’t sure why he’s been dragged to the nightclub by his new client and his this “screwy case.” But the visit to El Cuchillo stirs up a hornet’s nest, and by the end of the night, Shell is deep in the case to find the missing Tracy.

Case of the Vanishing Beauty was published in 1950, six years before Strip for Murder. Both novels of full of Shell’s unbridled lascivious view towards women, but the setting of a nudist camp in Strip for Murder allowed plenty of opportunity for Shell’s self-deprecating humour. In Case of the Vanishing Beauty, pouty, explosive, sultry, Lina doesn’t develop beyond her stereotype even though her character appears in several scenes in the book. Venezuelan Lina, who calls herself a Mexican dancer, plays a fairly big (jealous, possessive, explosive) role in the book far beyond the floorshow, and, unfortunately as a stereotype, she’s not that interesting–although Shell Scott seems fascinated. Still, this is the first in a long series of over 40 books, and the tale includes some great riffs on California life and being a PI:

Southern California is a mecca and melting pot for half the cults and societies of the civilized, and sometimes uncivilized, world. Maybe you live here or maybe you’ve been here and know about it and maybe you don’t. I was born in this town. A quarter century ago, when I was a towheaded kid starting kindergarten, Los Angeles  and Hollywood weren’t what they are now. Pepper trees lined Hollywood Boulevard and the movies were silent, flickery things. L.A.’s city limits were a fraction of what they are today, and the population was only about half what it is now.

I’ve watched it grow, and as it grew, and as people from all over the States and even the world poured in, a rash of religious, vegetarian, mystic, and occult healers and savers sprang up like no other part of the States ever saw. Messiahs sprang up out of the ground, milked the suckers dry, then faded out of sight. Healers laid on hands, read the stars for propitious signs, and stood on their heads to save the downtrodden and, incidentally, make a fast buck.

That’s a long quote, but it illustrates Prather’s breezy, yet punchy style; plus it includes the info that Shell Scott is a native-born Angelino which gave certain bragging rights back in the day.

While I didn’t enjoy Case of the Vanishing Beauty nearly as much as the very funny Strip for Murder, this first book introduces a great character: Shell Scott, who carries a 38 Colt and drives a yellow 1941 Cadillac convertible–he’s obviously not trying to keep a low profile around town. This is 50s Hollywood written in the 50s and not a writer trying to catch the right ambience. Prather successfully maintains a dream-like quality to the book that morphs into Shell Scott’s living nightmare:

After so long a time you get a little sick of violence. You see guys gasp and bleed and die, and it makes you feel a little funny, a little sick while it’s happening, when it’s right in front of your eyes. But it isn’t ever quite real when it’s going on, when you’re in it. Maybe a muscle man slugs you, or a torpedo takes a shot at you, or you’re pulling a trigger yourself or smashing a fist into a guy’s face, and you’re hurting or crippling or killing some trigger-happy hood. But when it’s actually happening, you’ve got adrenalin shooting into your bloodstream, your heart pounds, your breath comes faster, pumping more oxygen into your veins. Glands and body organs start working overtime to keep you sharp, keep you alive, and you’re not the same, you’re not thinking like the same guy. It’s all kind of a blur like a picture out of focus jumping in front of your eyes

 

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Black Wings Has My Angel: Elliott Chaze

“After all, no matter how long you live, there aren’t too many delicious moments along the way, since most of life is spent eating and sleeping and waiting for something to happen that never does. You can figure it up for yourself, using your own life as the scoreboard. Most of living is waiting to live. And you spend a great deal of time worrying about things that don’t matter and about people that don’t matter and all this you know the very day you’re going to die.”

I read Black Wings Has My Angel, a 1953 novel from Elliott Chaze in 2012. It not only made my best-of-year list, but it also became one of my all-time favourite books. Not many books crack that well-established list at this stage of my game.  Black Wings Has My Angel is perfect noir. It’s perfect in its set-up, it’s bleak, doom-laden outlook, and its characterisations of the soulless prostitute Virginia and the war damaged, escaped convict ‘Tim.’ These two people connect in a pact of distrust, lust and mutual greed, and although their heist goes as planned, their relationship with each other brings fate hurtling down upon them with a vengeance. When I saw that NYRB reissued the book, I decided to read it again and see if it was indeed as wonderful as I remembered. It was.

Our narrator, an escaped convict who calls himself Tim has taken a break from society by “roughnecking” on an drilling rig. He’s amassed a pile of money, has a plan to pull a heist, and when the novel opens, he’s in a hotel soaking in a tub when the bellboy delivers a prostitute. But this just isn’t any prostitute: this is Virginia, a gorgeous woman with a killer body who shouldn’t be turning tricks in this rinky dink town. Tim plans to whoop it up with a hooker for a few days and then move on, but his plans change and he finds himself moving on with Virginia.

Black wings has my angel NYRB

Ten dollar tramp” Virginia is beautiful, and she quickly shows she can’t be trusted, but she gets under Tim’s skin. Before long, he thinks he loves her, in spite of her telling him, “But when the money’s gone,” she said, “I’m gone too. I don’t sleep for thrills any more.” She’s like some exotic perfume that clings to his skin, and he convinces himself that they can pull a heist together. Although initially we don’t know much about either Virginia or Tim, over time, their pasts are revealed. While Tim, haunted by various experiences, appears to have been unable to readjust to society after life in a Japanese work camp,  Virginia is soulless, hard and empty. Perhaps that explains why Tim can never get enough of her. There’s simply nothing to get.

As smiles go, the one she’d given me was a fine one, but it was cold, too, if you know what I mean, plenty of stretch in the lips but no eyes or heart in it. Like her lovemaking. Mechanically splendid, yet as though the performance was the result of some remote control and did not really involve her. 

As so often happens with noir, we try to pinpoint just when things go wrong for the characters, at which point, Tim could have pulled out and moved on. And is always, we see a tangled path, years in the making that brings these two people–one damaged, and one soulless together. Initially it’s a physical fusion but their relationship is fated for entropy. While they plan a heist and live as a ‘normal’ suburban couple, they have a mutual goal to work for, but once their goal is achieved, they’re not happy, and begin to implode as fate waits, patiently, in the dark corners. There’s a circular quality to this noir story, a balance between crimes, murder and fate which is served up, finally, as a sort of rough justice.

For this re-read, I paid more attention to Tim’s attitude towards society and just where he started to go down a wrong path. Embittered by his father’s experiences as a dentist who rarely got paid, he sees society as grinding down men until they’re lobotomized into being grateful for life as a wage-slave, a humble clapboard house and a sparse lawn. And while it’s easy to think that his first mistake was taking Virginia along for the ride, that’s not true. I think of a quote from a Laurie Colwin short story: My MistressShe is the road I have travelled to her, and I am hers.”

Elliott Chaze’s skill creates sympathy for Tim, and this is in spite of the fact that he murders in cold blood. But perhaps part of our sympathy germinates for Tim when we compare him to Virginia. He has a lifetime to replay scenes in his head:

She was sitting on the floor, naked, in a skitter of green bills. Beyond her was the custodian , still simpering in death. She was scooping up handfuls of the green money and dropping it on top of her head so that it came sliding along the cream-colored hair, slipping down along her shoulders and body. She was making a noise I never heard come out of a human being. It was a scream that was a whisper and a laugh that was a cry. Over and over. The noise and the scooping. The slippery, sliding bills against the rigid body.

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Honky Tonk Samurai: Joe R. Lansdale

the front windshield collapsed like a Baptist deacon’s morals at a strip club.”

Honky Tonk Samurai is the eleventh book in author Joe R. Lansdale’s Hap and Leonard series. For those who are unfamiliar with this excellent series, Hap and Leonard are an East Texas pair, who live surrounded by rednecks and racism, are unlikely friends and consider themselves brothers. While the two aren’t exactly itinerants, they are content to live outside of mainstream culture by scraping a living at menial jobs as field hands or day laborers. Their close friendship substitutes for other familial relationships, and while these two men are the best of friends, blood brothers if you will, at other times, especially during humorous bantering sessions, they seem like an old married couple.

Honky Tonk samurai

Hap Collins is white, Leonard Pine is gay, black, a Vietnam vet. Digging back in Hap and Leonard history, Hap, who was a member of the counter-culture, refused to go to Vietnam, and served time for his opinions. The two men operate as a team, with Hap as our narrator, so the novels clearly lean towards the Hap side of things. Hap is often troubled about acts of violence that take place while Leonard isn’t troubled by moral questions. In all the Hap and Leonard books, somehow or another they are dragged into crime–not that they go looking for trouble; somehow trouble always looks for them. Sometimes it’s a returning ex that heralds trouble (Savage Season), and sometimes it begins with a friend asking for help.

I don’t think we ask for trouble, me and Leonard. It just finds us. It often starts casually, and then something comes loose and starts to rattle, like an unscrewed bolt on a carnival ride. No big thing at first, just a loose, rattling bolt, then the bolt slips completely free and flies out of place, the carnival ride groans and screeches, and it jags and tumbles into a messy mass of jagged parts and twisted metal and wads of bleeding human flesh.

Honky Tonk Samurai finds Hap and Leonard aging and working part-time for a detective agency. Not far into the tale, Hap’s long-term girlfriend, Brett, decides to give up nursing and takes over the company, and the first case appears in the shape of a crotchety, foul-mouthed, sinewy old woman who looks like a “retired hooker.

“You’re Hap Collins, aren’t you?”

“I am,” I said. “Do we know each other?”

“No, but when I was forty I’d like to have. You and me could have burned a hole in a mattress then. Course, you may not have been born. But you might want to lose a few pounds, honey. You’re beginning to chub up.”

“He’s taken,” Brett said, “Pounds and all.”

The old lady studied Brett. “Aren’t you the Southern belle? I bet you could earn a pretty penny on a Louisiana shrimp boat and never have to cast a net.”

“Listen, you old bag,” Brett said.
“Either say what you want or I’m going to stick that cane up your ass and throw you down the stairs so hard the dye will come out of your hair.”

Turns out the old lady, Lilly Buckner, is the first client of the Brett Sawyer Detective Agency, and she wants Hap to find her missing granddaughter Sandy. Sandy, who graduated with a journalism degree and “found that the newspapers and magazines that did hard news had gone the way of the dodo bird and drive-in theaters” ended up working at a “high-end” used car dealership, but one day she just disappeared. Five years have passed and the case is cold. Hap and Leonard go undercover as potential car buyers at the high-end dealership and discover that the business is selling more than just cars….

On the hunt for Sandy, Hap and Leonard stir up trouble in the form of a biker gang and a mysterious hitman known as the Canceler who has a habit of collecting trophy testicles. Cheap hustlers, petty cons, thugs and psychos populate Hap and Leonard’s colorful world, so expect some old familiar faces (including Jim Bob and his car, the Red Bitch), and some new weirdos. I haven’t read the entire Hap and Leonard series; I read a few of the early books and a couple of the later books, so I’d recommend that if you come to Honky Tonk Samurai you should also have at least Vanilla Ride under your belt.

As always with series characters, the adventure/case runs parallel to developments in the personal lives of the main players. In this instance, Leonard, who never baulks at using violence, is deeply torn over the behaviour of his lover, John who’s struggling with guilt for being homosexual. Hap and Brett face a surprise development when Hap’s past arrives on his doorstep.

It was a pleasure to read Hap and Leonard’s latest adventure. Author Joe R. Lansdale is clearly fond of these characters, and it shows. This is another excellent entry in an excellent series. It’s no surprise that someone finally saw the sense of picking up this unlikely crime fighting duo for a TV series, and I’m certain that this will brings Lansdale a new audience of fans.

Review copy

 

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Expiration Date: Duane Swierczynski

Regular readers of this blog know that I’m a fan of Duane Swierczynski, and with the arrival of 2016, it seemed like a good time to attack those bookshelves and get to his backlist, and that brings me to Expiration Date, a novel which clearly shows this author’s comic book roots.

expiration date

Set in the author’s native Philadelphia, this is a tale of unemployed journalist, Mickey Wade who finds himself, at 37 years old, with just over a $100 to his name, moving into his hospitalized grandfather’s run down apartment in Frankford, “one of the busiest drug corridors in the city.” Mickey thinks he’s hit rock bottom.

Slumming is one thing when you’re twenty two and just out of college and backed up by a deep-pile parental checking account. But moving into a bad neighborhood when you’re thirty-seven and have exhausted all other options is something else entirely. It’s a heavy thing with a rope, dragging you down to a lower social depth with no easy way back to the surface.

Waking from a hangover, Mickey opens his grandfather’s padlocked medicine cabinet and finds a “oversized vintage jar of Tylenol with a worn and cracked label,” stamped with an expiration date of 1982. Mickey takes four, goes to sleep, and wakes up in 1972….

Going back to the past is an intriguing idea. At first Mickey just takes disturbing trips for nostalgia and curiosity, but then realizes that something much deeper is afoot when he digs through papers and medical reports in his grandfather’s apartment which link these pills, and the things he sees on his various journeys, to the brutal, senseless slaying of his father that occurred decades earlier. The big question becomes, ‘can Mickey change the past?’

The more I practiced, the better my aim. The human mind is capable of all kinds of amazing tricks. Like telling yourself the night before that you want to wake up at a  certain time in the morning. more often than not, you wake up at that time–even beating the alarm clock you set as a backup.

So whenever I popped a pill, or the sliver of a pill, I started thinking hard about the date I wanted.

February 24.

February 28.

March 10.

March 30.

And so on.

No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t go back beyond the day I was born–February 22, 1972. This seemed the default line, and it was disappointing. The journalist in me had fantasies about going back to November 22, 1963, staking out the grassy knoll in Dallas and putting that nearly fifty-year-old story to bed. Dear Oliver Stone, my e-mail would begin….

But nothing doing. If I concentrated on February 21, 1972–or any day preceding it–I ended up back in February 22, 1972, by default.

I also couldn’t go back to a time I’d already visited. Maybe this was a built-in protection feature to prevent me from ripping open the fabric of reality , or something.

It worked.

The story includes a mental asylum, sinister secret government experiments, astral projection, but the pills, as Mickey discovers, have different results depending on who’s taking them….

Mickey Wade’s gnarly old grandfather may be lying in his hospital bed hooked up to numerous tubes and monitoring machines, but that doesn’t stop him from being a major player in this tale. Mickey’s mother, defeated by life’s disappointments, and now living with an ambulance chasing lawyer, Whiplash Walt, also makes an appearance.

Whiplash Walt was in rare form. Touching my mom’s shoulders, her back, her waist–like he was planning on killing her later and wanted to place as many fingerprints as possible, just so the Philly PD would be extra-clear who’d done it.

I’ve read a number of Swierczynski novels–all crime, all the time, so this book, with the time travel ‘butterfly effect‘ twist, was quite different from the others I read, but then again, when I think about what happened to Charlie Hardie, perhaps I shouldn’t be too surprised. As always with this author and his seemingly casual, lightly humorous style, this was a fun read. The novel certainly serves to showcase this author’s range, and the illustrations by Laurence Campbell underscore the author’s comic book roots.

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Savage Lane: Jason Starr

“Fantasies seem great, but they’re just gateway drugs. You need more and more and then, when reality kicks in, you’re totally fucked.”

Various destructive fantasies and desires collide and converge in Jason Starr’s Savage Lane, a maliciously dark look at the lives of a handful of affluent suburbanites. There is a consistent subtext throughout this author’s work: the American Dream is Starr’s American Nightmare. So whether Starr is focusing on stay-at home dads, achieving upward mobility, the vagaries of employment, assertiveness, home defense, or as in the case of Savage Lane, life in the ‘burbs, expect a subversive look at American society and its values. Jason Starr’s novels are classified as crime & suspense, and while there’s no argument there, since Starr’s characters are often supposedly decent upstanding members of society before they go off the rails and slide into criminality, I’ll add the label Transgressive fiction.

Savage Lane, a quiet prestigious neighbourhood in affluent Westchester county is home to the two families who are central to this story. There are the Bermans: husband Mark, his wife Debbie and their two children: Justin and Riley. And across the street is delectable, divorced Karen Daily and her two children Elana and Matthew.  Due to the similarities in status, economics and the children’s ages, the Bermans used to be best friends with Karen and her now-ex Joe, but since the divorce, things have become more awkward. As a divorced woman who dates a lot of men through internet sites, Karen has become, in the eyes of the other women in the community, a suspected husband stealer, a “homewrecker.”

The Bermans’ marriage is on the rocks, and while Deb has some nasty secrets of her own, she suspects that Mark is having an affair with Karen. Mark is certainly feeding the fire by hanging around Karen, jogging with her every day, texting her constantly and grabbing her hand at a party. Karen is so immersed in her own problems, that she fails to see the warning light, and Mark’s relationship as a friend creeps into something else.

Starr’s characters are constrained by societal standards but they long, or are pressured, to bust out and reveal the beast within. So we see Mark’s obsession with Karen growing to dangerous levels, and Deb, who has a problem with alcohol, determined to cast herself in the role of victim so that she can divorce, and loot, Mark. While these two families spiral out of control (and this includes a girl fight at the local prestigious country club), there’s another character here who’s already on the board and is about to change the entire game.

savage laneThat’s as much of the plot as I’m going to discuss.

I loved Savage Lane for its nastiness, its dark, dark humour, and its subversiveness. The story is told from various viewpoints–and I’ll stress not multiple narrators. That leaves Starr always in control of his story. Even though the story unfolds from different characters (including the wildly unreliable) so that we see inside their heads, Starr gives his characters no place to hide. While the characters comfort themselves with justification and excuses, their weaknesses and foibles are glaringly and hilariously on display. One of the techniques Starr employs is to show the way we lies to ourselves in order to slide into certain slippery behaviour. Here’s Karen with her usual liquid breakfast:

She still felt nauseated and her head was killing her. After making sure she’d deleted all the texts she’d sent and received, she switched the phone to silent mode and put it away in her purse. Then she heard Casey clacking away down the stairs and a few moments later he came into the kitchen, panting, and went right toward the sliding screen doors. She let him out and then, watching the happy dog sprint toward the backyard to do his business, the thought, Dog, hair of the dog, that’s it, and she got a glass, went to the liquor cabinet in the dining room, and poured some vodka–not much, just half a glass, enough to get back.

I especially loved the scenes en famille, for Starr is merciless with his portrayal of pathological family life. There’s an irony to the whole set-up. Karen, addicted to exercise and trying to stay marketable, is desperately surfing dating sites to get her new man while Deb, sinking into alcoholism, tells herself she doesn’t need her husband around anymore. Caught in between these two is cologne-soaked, pathetic creeper Mark, who fancies himself as a Javier Bardem look-alike. Here’s a chaotic scene in which a police detective, Piretti, questions Mark about his wife and his relationship with Karen. Mark is trying desperately to downplay any family issues, but his resentful teenage daughter jumps in and reveals the rot. Even the dog gets in on the mayhem.

“Friends don’t text that much, especially grownups who are friends. That’s why Mom wanted a divorce, because she knew what was going on too, she wasn’t a fucking idiot.”

“Riley, that’s enough,” her dad said, raising his voice.

But Riley kept going, saying, “It’s true. That’s why she’d been acting so weird lately.”

“How was she acting weird?” Piretti asked.

“She’s very upset, she doesn’t know what she’s saying,” her dad said to Piretti.

“She was too acting weird,” Riley said.
She was distracted all the time, and she was drinking like crazy. Sometimes I’d come home from school and smell the alcohol on her breath. Saturday morning in the car on the way home from dance class, she was acting really weird.”

“That’s enough Riley.,” her dad said.

“Let her talk,” Piretti said.

[…]

Then Justin came into the kitchen, holding an X-Box joystick, and asked, “Is Mom home yet?”

“Is that why Mom wanted a divorce?” Riley said to her dad. “Because you were going to leave her for Karen?”

Now Casey came into the kitchen and was barking.

“Shut up,” Mark said to her, and maybe to the dog too.

Jason Starr is not a stylist, and neither is he interested in in-depth character analysis, so his books tend to look as though they are deceptively easy to write. He is not writing ‘great literature,’ but neither is that his intention; Starr’s novels (he’s also written a number of graphic and comic books) are modern pulp threaded with societal concerns and pressures, so here we see mouthy teenagers who lead lives their parents are unaware of, children who are more worried about the X-Box than a less-than stellar parent, and cell phones as a helluva way to get in trouble. Spearing characters who find themselves in positions in life without quite understanding how they got there, Starr’s strengths are his plotting and his vision of the confinements of the norms of society. Just as you think you have nailed the plot of Savage Lane, Starr barrels in out of left field and delivers surprise after surprise, so be prepared. Savage Lane, fueled by the triple horsepower of urban middle age angst, fantasy and obsession is Starr’s best novel yet.

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Nothing in Her Way: Charles Williams (1953)

“There’s always a warning, if you’ll listen to it. It buzzes when you’re playing cards with strangers and get an almost perfect hand.”

Nothing in Her Way, American author Charles Williams’s fifth novel is completely different from his earlier work. In common with Hill Girl, River Girl, and Hell hath no Fury, the narrator is a lone male whose life becomes complicated by a woman, but  Nothing in her Way, is primarily about an elaborate con which begins when narrator, Mike Belen crosses paths, once again with his red-headed ex-wife, a knockout called Cathy. Mike had almost forgotten about Cathy, but now she’s back and once more in her presence, her former power over Mike returns. Mike acknowledges “she was a whirlpool I was trapped in,” and while he thinks he knows this woman better than anyone else, she still manages to deliver some surprises–none of them pleasant. Cold and calculating, Cathy always plays the long game.

The novel opens in New Orleans with Mike losing heavily at the track. He’s in a bar, drowning his sorrows, when he’s approached by a con artist named Charlie. Then Cathy, now using the name Elaine Holman, appears on the scene and persuades Mike to join in an elaborate con scheme which will exact revenge against a couple of old enemies. At this point, Mike isn’t sure who’s conning who here, and he’s not particularly interested in finding out. Although he and Cathy have been divorced for two years, he wants her back and against his sense of self-preservation, he finds himself going along with her scheme. It’s primal desire mixed with jealousy, and a probably unwarranted need to protect her.

It was strange, the way you couldn’t escape from the past. Or was it the past? Maybe she was the thing I could never get away from. I lit another cigarette and tried to think objectively about it.

Cathy/Elaine is part of a gang formed to con a wealthy San Francisco businessman who’s “paying chunks of alimony to two wives already and number three is getting ready to push up to the trough.” But that’s only the second stage of their Grand Plan. First they need seed money, and for that Mike, now co-opted into the plan, travels to a bleak little desert town and poses as a chemical engineer. …

To say more about the story would spoil the tale for other readers. Let’s just say that there are more twists and turns here than a bowl of spaghetti with the double crosses and the triple crosses continuing until the last page. You have to pay attention to the action as no one is playing a straight game. As I can’t say much about plot, instead I’ll give a quote about Cathy:

The thing I could never go along with was her preoccupation with confidence games. She collected them. She studied the way some people study chess, or Lee’s campaigns in the Civil War. She read everything she could find about them, and devised endless ones of her own, and always she’d lose patience with me because I couldn’t keep up any steady interest in them.

While the earlier novels from Charles Williams include a large chunk of love and lust, love–or at least a sense of deep bonding–is here too, but it’s definitely subordinate to greed. Williams shows how the con-gang reel in their marks through greed, and this involves research into the circumstances and weaknesses of their potential victims.  Since part of the novel takes place in San Francisco, there’s mention of Alcatraz and San Quentin– certainly destinations on the mind of any criminal in those days:

The apartment was on the ninth floor. I stood by the big windows in the living room and looked out over the bay. It was sparkling and clear in the morning sunshine, and I could see a boat going out to Alcatraz. They’ve got a view over there too, I thought, but they don’t like it. A whole rock covered with tough guys and wisenheimers who knew more than the cops. And just beyond, out of sight up the bay, was San Quentin, where the state of California kept its smart characters who could never be caught.

 

nothing in her wayWhile Nothing in her Way is not the author’s best novel, it’s still an excellent read and is available as a two-fer through Stark House Press. River Girl , the second novel in this volume, is vying for top place as my favourite Williams novel along with Hell Hath no Fury.

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The Big Heat: William P. McGivern (1953)

“You couldn’t plant enough flowers around here to kill the stench.”

I’d hazard a guess that most noir film fans have seen the Fritz Lang film version of The Big Heat. Starring Gloria Grahame (one of my favourite noir actresses), Glenn Ford and Lee Marvin, The Big Heat makes many Top Noir Film lists, and it certainly makes mine. That brings me to the book, inspired by a true story, by William P. McGivern. The book, published in 1953 first appeared in serial form; it took the author just three weeks to write it, and that same year, the film rights were sold. My copy sat on a shelf for years, and while I picked it up every few months, I always put the book down. Now after finishing the book, I realize that my reluctance to read it stemmed from a concern that I’d be disappointed. Guess what… I wasn’t.

Set in Philadelphia, The Big Heat is a hard-boiled, moody tale of police corruption, how one brave solitary detective tries to solve a murder case, and the very great personal cost he pays for his integrity.

The big heatOn a night of heavy rain, detectives in the homicide department receive a call from a Mrs Deery that her husband, a police clerk who worked in the Superintendent’s office, has committed suicide. Although two detectives are playing cards when the phone rings, the atmosphere in the office is one of palpable disquiet, and that sensation only deepens with the news of Deery’s death.

A cop’s death is one thing; it means black bunting looped over the door of his station house for a week or so, a few paragraphs in the papers, and a note to his family from the Mayor and his captain. A cop’s suicide is another matter. It can mean that the man was a weakling, a neurotic, a fool–in any case no one to have been safeguarding the lives and properties of other citizens, or it can mean something even less wholesome, something potentially dangerous to the entire, close-knit fabric of the department.

Bannion goes to the Deery home, and although the case seems to be a cut and dried suicide, there are some elements to the situation that are troubling. Deery, a meticulous man, shot himself in his study, and one of things that catches Bannion’s attention is that Deery read travel books–a choice that strikes Bannion as “curious.” Bannion, already sensing that something doesn’t add up, then meets the smiling, composed widow–a woman whose careful grooming seems a little out of place:

Everything about her was meticulously arranged and ordered: her small black patent leather pumps shone glossily, her sheer nylons lacked even the suggestion of a wrinkle, and her nail polish and makeup looked as if it had been applied, and with great care, within the last fifteen or twenty minutes. And possibly it had, Bannion thought, with an odd quirk of annoyance.

The unknown reason behind Deery’s suicide rankles Bannion–although the grieving widow mouths a few words about her husband being worried about his health. The case is apparently closed, but then Bannion gets a call from a woman called Lucy Carroway claiming she has some information about Deery. Lucy, Deery’s one-time mistress, saw Deery 5 days before his death, and according to Lucy, “he was never happier in his life.” Bannion, a decent, hard-working, relentless homicide detective, goes to talk to Mrs Deery again, and tries to align the version of Deery given by his respectable, middle-class widow with the concerns of Lucy, a seemingly sincere woman with a tarnished past. Suddenly Bannion’s off the case and Lucy disappears….

There are several times when Bannion, a truly fascinating character, knows that he’s at a “crossroads […] either he went along and took orders, or he changed jobs.” Surrounded by corruption at every level, Bannion must make a choice, and he understands that there will be a great price to pay if he tries to buck the system. Still mulling over the question of which path to take, the decision is taken out of his hands when the stakes change.

The heat was on, the fix was in, call it what you like. Bannion had been nosing around something safe and protected, ignoring the No Trespassing signs, and so to hell with honest police work

In many ways, The Big Heat has the feel of a western with the lone hero seeking justice in an overwhelmingly corrupt world. Bannion, spurred on by tragedy, soon finds himself seeking revenge against violent gangsters as “the big heat” encompasses the city. As Bannion begins to stalk his quarry, he sets off a struggle within the criminal hierarchy of Philadelphia. Bannion is a character we like immediately–partly for his acknowledgment that “there was nothing more potentially revealing, he felt, than a man’s honest, impulsive reactions to a book.” He’s a tall, quiet man, respected by his colleagues and yet underestimated by his boss and the brutal gangsters who control the city:

Bannion shifted slightly in his chair. “You’d better listen a bit now,” he said. He felt anger surging up in him, pounding for release. This had always been his cross, a violent, hair-trigger temper that tore the control away from his judgement and reason. He fought it down now, as he had fought it for years. Bannion permitted himself no excesses of anger; he refused to pander to his buried need for violence, for unmotivated destruction. Bannion was known as a kind man, a gentle man, but only he knew the effort it cost him to play the role.

The book’s beautifully crafted dark mood is maintained throughout, not only by twists of plot but also by subtle references to the weather and the relentless rain. McGivern paints a portrait of  a corrupt city populated with greedy politicians, brutal gangsters, and a handful of good people who stand up for Bannion. Along the way to justice, Bannion meets Debby (Gloria Grahame in the film), the girlfriend of classless gangster, Max Stone (played by Lee Marvin), and in a very peculiar, yet brilliantly unexpected way, Debby becomes a sort of salvation for Bannion. For this reader, the best scene in the book occurs when Bannion confronts Mrs Deery and we see just how awful this seemingly-respectable widow really is. The roles given to the women in the book are fantastic–there’s Kate, Bannion’s wife who is the exact opposite of Mrs Deery, and then there are two women who exist on the fringes of society, Lucy and Debby, who both make incredibly strong moves and pay the price.

gunIf you’re going to buy a copy of The Big Heat, then try to get your hands on the version pictured here from ibooks. This edition contains an afterword from the author in which he explains some fundamentals about the book and the film, and a very significant meeting he had with Fritz Lang in Rome in 1962. This great director explained to McGivern exactly why he connected with the film and its depiction of a man standing up to evil. There are just a few differences between the book and the film, and it’s a classic case of the film version capitalizing on the visuals implied by the book.

204 pages including afterword

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Eileen: Ottessa Moshfegh

“That is what I imagined life to be–one long sentence of waiting out the clock.”

Eileen, from author Ottessa Moshfegh is a novel that could described in many ways, yet I doubt if any single description would give a potential reader an accurate impression of this book. It’s a crime novel, a bildungsroman, a character study, a story of a dysfunctional family–all these things wrapped into a dark tale of how Eileen, a complicated, repressed young woman, locked into a pathological home life and employed in a job she dislikes, breaks free. After reading about Eileen’s miserable home life, within a few pages she tells us:

In a week, I would run away from home and never go back. This is the story of how I disappeared.

The story is told by a now elderly Eileen who relates a week in her life 50 years earlier in 1964. And here is how this extraordinary book begins right before Christmas in a “brutal cold town” Eileen masks as X-ville:

I looked like a girl you’d expect to see on a city bus, reading some clothbound book from the library about plants or geography, perhaps wearing a net over my light brown hair. You might take me for a nursing student or a typist, note the nervous hands, a foot tapping, bitten lip. I looked like nothing special. It’s easy for me to imagine this girl, a strange and mousy version of me, carrying an anonymous leather purse, or eating from a small package of peanuts, rolling each one between her gloved fingers, sucking in her cheeks, staring anxiously out the window.

Right away one of the book’s themes creeps in: appearances vs reality, and 24-year-old Eileen is quite aware that she’s frumpy, painfully thin, and extremely unattractive. Yet Eileen, who describes herself as “ugly, disgusting, unfit for the world” courts this look by wearing her dead mother’s far-too big clothing. She lives with her cruel alcoholic, widowed ex-cop father–a man plagued with booze-fueled paranoias, in a filthy three-storey colonial, and she sleeps on a cot up in the unfinished attic. With a poor diet, and obsessed with her body functions and their associated odours, she’s become addicted to laxatives in order to produce regular bowel movements.  There are hints that Eileen may be anorexic, chewing sweets to get the flavor before spitting them out as she curls up on a mattress in the squalor of her attic room.

Within a few pages we know that sexually repressed, “always furious,” Eileen toys with fantasies of death and suicide. She imagines stepping out of her house and one of the large icicles “plummeting through the hollow” of her collarbone or even entering “the vacuous center” of her body “like a glass dagger.” But there are other fantasies too–fantasies of escaping her horrible, suffocating home life in the small Massachusetts town.  Perhaps if you saw frumpily dressed Eileen, you’d think, as she suggests, that she’s a “shy and gentle soul for afar,” but that impression would be wrong. Eileen is a hard drinker and a chronic shoplifter. Her father’s constant cruel barbs bounce off her armour and fail to penetrate. She likes books about “awful things–murder, illness, death,” and she keeps a dead mouse in the glove box of the old Dodge Cornet she drives.

eileen

 

There’s also what Eileen calls the “death mask,” the expression she wears to hide how she really feels, and it’s also what she recognizes in other people–especially the young offenders at the juvenile correctional facility for boys where she is employed as a secretary of sorts. The prison is run with a religious bent, so the boys, many of whom look like sad angels, are forced to read the bible and are punished for masturbating by being thrown in “the cave.” Just as Eileen moves through the motions at home, she goes through the motions at work, noting the broken-hearted mothers who visit, and the damaged boys, the youngest is 9, who shuffle through the system. Some of the young prisoners are guilty of horrendous crimes against family members, yet Eileen acknowledging, in retrospect, that she was too self-focused for empathy, mostly likes the inmates. In spite of her inexperience, she understands that many of the boys wear the same “death mask” as she does; that they too have perfected the art of hiding their thoughts, their feelings, their real selves. One prisoner in particular, Leonard Polk, a boy who murdered his cop father, catches Eileen’s attention:

There was a strange bounce in his step. His face was bright and relaxed, and serene in a way that no other boy’s face had ever seemed, a loose reservedness which I found myself admiring. He looked pleased, impenetrable, and cold as though nothing could ever disturb him, and yet still as innocent as the silent creature I’d seen earlier touching himself absentmindedly on his cot in the cave. I searched for something in his face, anything his mask of contentment might betray, but there was nothing. He was a genius in that sense–a master. His was the best mask I’d ever seen.

Eileen’s main interest at work is a former inmate, the brawny guard, Randy, and while Randy seems oblivious to this mousy girl, she sneaks peeks at his crotch, tries to catch a whiff of his sweat, and spends nights and weekends stalking him, parked outside of his apartment.

In spite of Eileen’s measured, calm voice, this tale is tension packed. We know that something bad happens; we’re just waiting for that catalyst, “her destiny” to appear. …

What’s so beautiful about Eileen’s story–a story about escape, crime and survival are the moments when she injects comments into the narrative as she looks back on her old life, says goodbye to characters in the story she never saw again, and mulls over the person she used to be.

Funny the things one remembers. I spent most Sundays holed up at home or driving to and from Randy’s house while my father was out communing with god or whatever he thought he was doing at church.

What happened in X-ville was just the beginning of Eileen’s journey and that experience was often bitter:

So you seem what came after this story ends was not a direct line to paradise, but I believe I got on the right road, with all the appropriate trips and kinks

Eileen seems to be a book that divides opinion. Many reviews on goodreads state that readers never liked or felt close to Eileen. While for me, this was never the point, I have to say that I felt the opposite. Ottessa Moshfegh’s skillfully woven narrative takes us into Eileen’s intriguing, dark, complex mind, and Eileen doesn’t spare or excuse herself while categorically refusing victim status. As a character, shaped by her environment, she makes sense, and in a ‘what if’ sort of way, it’s easy to predict what Eileen would have become if she’s stayed trapped in X-ville.

You know you really love a book when you create reading opportunities. I’m still thinking about this book which will end up on my best-of-year list, so it’s highly recommended if you like an extremely dark read full of twisted and unpleasant characters. Eileen has been compared, justifiably, to Alfred Hitchcock, and I’ll go one further and say that Eileen should appeal to fans of Patricia Highsmith. In Eileen, crime isn’t seen as a prelude to punishment, or a tool in the battle between good and evil; it’s seen as a liberating event. And that’s wonderfully, remarkably twisted.

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The Last Days of Il Duce: Domenic Stansberry

The novel The Last Days of Il Duce from Domenic Stansberry opens with convicted killer, Niccolò Jones telling his story from Coldwater Penitentiary. We’re told: “Three people I used to know are dead. Two of them I loved, the other I hated–though lately I am less sure about the difference between these feelings.” The crux of this story becomes who was murdered and more importantly, why, and Nic’s story, told in the form of a confession to the reader, gradually fills in that missing information.

Nic Jones and his brother Joe grew up in North Beach with a glamorous Italian mother and a disabled WWII veteran dad. Even though their father’s name was Jones, they were known in the tight-knit Italian community as the Abruzzi boys. Both boys are deeply attracted to an Italian girl called Marie Donnatelli, and the three youngsters spend a lot of time together. There are some ugly rumours about the boy’s mother and the affluent, reptilian Italian lawyer, Micaeli Romano, and while this man casts a shadow over the boys’ childhood, it’s a shadow that neither brother can quite shirk off as adults.

the last daysAll this information is given as a short introduction to the main players before Nic moves the story ahead thirty years to 1986. In spite of the fact that Nic eventually became Romano’s protégé and attended UCLA, he’s now, at forty, broke, a washed-up lawyer who specializes in evictions for local slumlord, Jimmy Wong.

This is an incredibly atmospheric novel set in San Francisco with an emphasis on the erosion of the Italian community and the ascendency of the Chinese, with the elderly Italians full of opinions about Mussolini and his mistress, and somehow Nic Jones has become an emblem of the fall of the Italians, a man who has turned on his own people.

All this while I stared down into Chinatown, where the men in their gray suits, and the women in their smocks and the little children with their black eyes all filled the streets, more and then more of them it seemed to me, while overhead the Chinese characters filled the signs, neon blinking in the mid-afternoon, all those indecipherable letters rolling and tumbling into an upended martini glass over the liquor store.

We get a few glimpses of Nic’s past, his desire for Marie, and his relationship with the long gone Anna-a woman who probably represented the type of life Nic half-heartedly aspired to. It’s not quite clear when Nic’s career started to fail, and he’s not a particularly pleasant or sympathetic character. There’s never enough money, he drinks too much, visits prostitutes, and tries not to think too much about some of the shadier aspects of his job.

It had been five years since I’d had an office bigger than the desk in my apartment, even longer since I’d done anything those in the profession might consider the practice of law. I hadn’t been disbarred though so I guess this counted for something.

Nic’s life begins to turn nightmarish one night when he meets his brother Joe. Joe married Marie years ago, but they divorced and now he’s remarried. Joe, a former coke user, has cleaned up, and as a carpenter he makes a marginal living, but this night Joe has big plans and hints that he has “leverage” to land an exclusive contract on a condo deal. Joe won’t elaborate, but then a few hours later, Joe is murdered. Investigating Homicide Detective Leanora Chinn has two theories: this is a drug deal that went wrong. That’s the theory that’s discussed, but there’s another implied theory–that due to the brothers’ shared history with Marie, Nic, the last person who acknowledges seeing Joe, is the murderer. Since Nic doesn’t buy the first theory and knows the second is false, he starts investigating, and this takes him to a trail that leads back to WWII and Il Duce.

The novel’s strength is in its atmosphere and its descriptions of San Francisco:

I walked with her across Columbus Avenue, past the Ling Wei Hotel and into Chinatown. We jostled down Stockton Street where the crowds are always shoulder-to-shoulder, and the shop bins are filled with plastic chopsticks and paper fans and nylon kimonos, and the grocery windows are strung with half-cooked chickens, plucked and shiny, hanging from their bright read feet. Up above, in the second story knock-outs, the women were working behind sewing machines, just as they have worked forever, only these days there were competing with sweatshops in Bangkok and Hong Kong, and the little spools of thread spun on their spindles deep into the night.

The formulaic solution to the crime (which I guessed), and the characters who go through the motions of a dark dance of deceit, were the weakest parts of the novel, and I am left with a sense that the book’s marvelous framework excelled the crime and the characters:

There is farmland beyond the walls of the prison, and I know that, and beyond the walls too are neat little stucco houses and palm trees, and it’s true that sometimes I imagine myself walking down one of those roads. Perhaps someone whispers my name, and I hear the voice of Homicide Detective Leanora Chinn, and I walk beside her straight and true.

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Jack of Spades: Joyce Carol Oates

Point me in the direction of a book written by an unreliable narrator, and chances are I’ll want to read it, and that brings me to Jack of Spades by Joyce Carol Oates. First the disclaimer: I’m not a fan of this author’s novels–although I like some of her short stories, so I hesitated when I saw this.

Jack of Spades is narrated by best-selling author Andrew J. Rush who lives with his wife, Irina in a prestigious home in Harbourton, New Jersey. Almost immediately we can tell that there’s something a little off about Rush, for while he appears almost gushingly humble and self-deprecating, he never misses an opportunity to slip in self-flattery even as he tries to paint himself as a nice, normal man, a pillar of the community. He describes himself as “the most famous of local residents,” and with 28 books to his credit, this is no doubt true. He writes “best-selling mystery-suspense novels with a touch of the macabre. (Not an excessive touch, not nasty-mean, or disturbing. Never obscene, nor even sexist. Women are treated graciously in my mysteries, apart from a few obligatory noir performances.”

Jack of SpadesHere’s where the cracks begin to appear in Andrew’s self-portrait, for while he’s busy emphasizing that his books are in good taste, then he reveals that he writes an entirely different type of book under the pseudonym: Jack of Spades, “born out of my restlessness with the success of Andrew J. Rush.” These books have a cult-type popularity, are extremely violent, sexist, “cruder, more visceral, more frankly horrific.” The local library refuses to stock any titles by Jack of Spades, so Rush donates copies.

So right away, we have a paradox: Rush goes to great lengths to continually explain how his books don’t offend, don’t cross any lines, but then he also produces, secretly, this whole other line of books that are offensive and written in extremely bad taste.  We can only conclude that Rush is a very complicated man who needs to hide his more vicious, violent side beneath the surface of both his personal and professional life.

But is Rush a nice guy at home? As layers of the story drop away, we see Irina through Rush’s eyes. Once she was a promising writer, but now she teaches at a small school. Even though Rush frequently prefaces the word, ‘wife’ with the term “dear,” there’s violence, dominance and control behind his attitude, and that violence occasionally seeps through the surface when she questions her husband or suddenly appears in the areas of the house that are more or less forbidden to her.

Soon after we were married, Irina gave up writing. I had been her most enthusiastic reader and had continued to encourage her, going through drafts of stories and novels, but something hesitant and self-doubting had crept into her sense of herself as a writer. Gently I admonished her–“Darling, you care too much for precision and perfection. There’s no need to polish each damned sentence–just say what you want to say.”

But Irina grew ever more shy about her writing. I hope it wasn’t because I insisted upon reading everything she wrote, and offering my heartfelt, sincere, and sympathetic critiques.

It doesn’t take too long before you realize that the veneer of nice guy and good husband (and what about those estranged children?) is stretched thin and that Rush could explode at any minute. The name ‘Jack of Spades’ is a pseudonym, but it’s also a label for Andrew’s dangerously violent alter ego.

The pivotal incident occurs when Rush is served with a summons to appear at the local courthouse. With a very nice touch, the summons is misspelled, and Rush, for a moment, imagines that there’s some mistake–surely the summons is meant for ‘Andwer J. Rash,’ whoever he is, and not him. But no … as it turns out, he’s being accused by some local nut of plagiarism–and not just plagiarism; he’s also being accused of actually breaking into someone’s home and stealing her unpublished manuscripts.

This accusation sparks a violent turn of events in Rush’s life. So far, he’s barely managed to keep the more violent side of his personality under control. The civil suit tests that ‘nice guy’ veneer to the limit.

There are many. many five-star reviews of Jack of Spades out there. For this reader, in the minority, the book doesn’t have much appeal. Perhaps if I hadn’t read Henry Sutton’s brilliant: Get Me Out of Here or Phil Hogan’s wonderfully nasty  A Pleasure and a Calling, I’d feel differently, but both Hogan and Sutton take the intricacies of the unreliable narrator to new levels; Jack of Spades does not. The narrative exposition lacks subtlety.  Both Henry Sutton and Phil Hogan constructed windows in the lives of two very different, cunning, psychopathic narrators, and while we read about the actions of these men with fascinated horror, it’s to both Hogan and Sutton’s credit that we can acknowledge the nasty intelligence and craftiness of their protagonists as they create mayhem for other people. In the case of Andrew Rush, there’s nothing to admire–not even the bestsellers. Being in his mind is an unpleasant chore.

Jack of Spades is at its best in its references to Stephen King. Andrew Rush is constantly compared to King. This comparison to Stephen King obviously bugs the hell out of Rush who tries to get some recognition from King, and then later he plays a nasty trick involving King that seems both tongue-in-cheek and also references how King attracts the nuts for some reason. While Andrew Rush can’t help but be flattered by the comparisons to King, there’s a niggling annoyance there that Stephen King is richer and much more famous:

With my third bestseller in the 1990s it began to be said about me in the media–Andrew J. Rush is the gentleman’s Stephen King.

Of course, I was flattered. sales of my novels, though in the millions after a quarter-century of effort, are yet in the double-digit millions and not the triple-digit, like Stephen King’s. And though my novels have been translated into as many as thirty languages–(quite a surprise to me, who knows only one language)-I’m sure that Stephen King’s books have been translated into even more, and more profitably. And only three of my novels have been adapted into (quickly forgotten) films, and only two into (less-than-premium cable) TV dramas–unlike King, whose adaptations are too many to count.

But who’s counting, right?

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