Tag Archives: gangsters

The Dead Stay Dumb: James Hadley Chase (1941)

The Making of a Gangster’s Moll …

“From now on I’m givin’ the orders and you’re takin’ em, see? We’re getting into the dough, an’ no one’s stoppin’ us. If they get in our way it’s goin’ to be so much grief for ’em–get that? In a little while I’ll be running the town. You can get in at the ground floor or you can stay out. You stay out an’ one dark night someone’s goin’ to toss a handful of slugs in your guts.”

The Dead Stay Dumb was published in 1941, just two years after No Orchids for Miss Blandish, and while the thematic connection is clear (gangsters running amok), of the two novels, I preferred No Orchids.

The Dead Stay Dumb is the story of Dillon, a hood–a cheap, violent, brutal hood so riddled with inchoate ambition that he brings about his own destruction. This is by far the most violent James Hadley Chase novel I’ve read so far (out of six). The violence, which comes with rapid, unrelenting speed was shocking. This is a novel without heroes or heroines, and our main character, Dillon, who let’s his Tommy gun do the talking for him, survives encounter after encounter simply because he’s the most vicious character in these pages.

the dead stay dumb

When Dillon arrives in the small town of Plattsville, he’s a “long, starved shadow of a man.” He looks like an average hobo, shabby and dusty, but there’s something about his aggression and the dead expression in his eyes that convinces some of the local bullies to give him wide berth. Store owner Abe Goldberg offers him a meal, but when he turns down booze and cigarettes and thwarts a bullying customer, Abe also offers employment to Dillon. But men like Dillon, whose former employer was Baby Face Nelson,  don’t want 9-5; they want money, lots of it, and they want it faster than they can earn it.

Within a short time of landing on his feet, Dillon organises a criminal enterprise by bullying the local thugs into becoming his underlings. Seventeen-year-old Myra Hogan, the local hottie, sets her sights on Dillon, and finding herself turned on by his brutality, she makes the mistake of thinking she can control it and turn violence into sexual passion.

Dillon said, “Skip it. I ain’t listening to big-mouth talk from a kid with hot pants. Get what you want and blow.”

Myra took three quick steps forward and aimed a slap at Dillon’s face. She was nearly sobbing with rage. Dillon reached up and caught her wrist. “Be your age,” he said, “you ain’t in the movies.”

Myra, who rapidly becomes an adept gangster’s moll, hits the road with Dillon, eventually teaming up with another crook called Roxy who is the least repulsive character in a book full of repulsive people. Dillon doesn’t see the point of women, and he isn’t impressed with Myra’s looks or sexuality. The way he sees it, she doesn’t have anything different from every other woman on the planet, so what’s she got to brag about? While women serve a purpose for Dillon, they’re not much use as living, breathing human beings, and at one point, he advises a fellow crook to use the Neanderthal approach: “if you gotta lay this bitch, why didn’t you knock her cold first?”

I’m not going to include a clip of the descriptive violence because it really is over-the-top, and I don’t want to ruin anyone’s digestion, but I will add that The Dead Stay Dumb includes one of the longest, most violent fights between two women that I’ve ever read.

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Filed under Chase James Hadley, Fiction

Cocktail Noir: From Gangsters and Gin Joints to Gumshoes and Gimlets by Scott M. Deitche

“People act differently sometimes when they’re drunk. They bother me.” (Lucky Luciano)

Scott M. Deitche’s book, Cocktail Noir: From Gangsters and Gin Joints to Gumshoes and Gimlets pays homage to the “intertwining of alcohol and the underworld.” Watch any classic noir or crime film, and you can’t help but be impressed at the way the characters knock back booze regardless of the time of day or the company they keep, and Deitche’s book effectively taps into that by-gone era. This book’s first chapter: The Dark Corner with Cocktail in Hand talks about “the rise of cocktail culture,” the revival of certain classic cocktails and includes recipes of such cocktails as the Negroni, the Stork Club Cooler and the Sloe Gin Fizz.

After this introduction, the author moves to the subject of Prohibition and discusses the various types of alcohol prevalent during this period: Rum, the entrepreneurial upswing in Moonshine, and Whiskey. While I knew about the Volstead Act’s “ban on consumption of alcohol up to twelve miles offshore,” I was unaware that this law paved the way to the birth of the “booze cruise.” Make a law and people find ways to get around it….

cocktail noirOther chapters (all with an emphasis on alcohol) include: Crime Novelists and their Characters, Mob Authors, Cocktail Noir on Screen, Bar Noir (“A tour through the best of these watering holes,”) and Gangster Bars (includes a page on the Stork Club and another on The Cotton Club). Each chapter includes photos and, of course, cocktail recipes, so we read about authors’ favourite drinks, crime bosses’ chosen drinks and the various places they hung out.

This is not an in-depth non fiction exploration of prohibition, but short, fact-filled, theme-based chapters, accompanied by some great quotes, and with the content leaning towards trivia, linking alcohol and organized crime. Some of the trivia is regarding figures from the 70s and 80s, so this book is not about prohibition–although that’s where it starts. I could almost call this a coffee-table book, but that would not be accurate. While the book has 237 pages, it’s undersized; you can hold it in one hand and have a cocktail in the other. This book is targeted for noir/crime lovers, those who wish to try some of the classic recipes mentioned in noir fiction and film, and would make a great gift for the noir aficionado in your life. And honestly, you have to be curious about a drink called The Corpse Reviver, don’t you?

Review copy

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Dark Times in the City by Gene Kerrigan

After hearing a couple of friends rave about the crime novels of Irish author Gene Kerrigan, I knew I’d have to read one sooner or later, and this brings me to Dark Times in the City, a gritty crime novel that explores the difficulties of remaining neutral in a corrupt damaged society where taking a moral stand can prove to be expensive.

Dark TimesDanny Callaghan is a 32-year-old ex-con who’s been out of prison for just 7 months. As an ex-con, he’s considered a success since he’s chosen the straight life. Callaghan lives in a nest of low-rent, drug-infested flats called ‘the hive’ and is holding his life together with a marginal job as a driver which allows him to tune out and remain independent. Ironically, he drives around visiting toffs and business execs whose nightly excursions tend to end in vomit-soaked drunken binges while Callaghan hangs out and acts responsible. One night, he’s minding his own business in a pub and having a quiet pint when two men walk in to make a hit.

The first assassin spotted his target and began to move forward. By now, most of those in the vicinity knew what was happening. The motorcycle helmet indoors, the armed minder watching the killer’s back and the quick stride towards the intended victim–in recent years, a routine as recognisable as a Riverdance twirl.

Danny doesn’t hesitate; he steps in between the gunmen and the intended victim and sends the two thugs packing. With this action, Danny finds himself dragged into a very ugly turf war between two rival gangs. One gang is run by the ageing Lar Mackendrick who’s had a tight fist on the Dublin crime scene for decades. The other gang is run by 27-year-old Frank Tucker, the head of a crime family that may or may not have old business with Danny Callaghan. Callaghan served 8 years in prison for manslaughter. He claimed he killed Big Brendan Tucker in self-defense, but with Big Brendan’s family, including his nephew Frank Tucker testifying against the self-defense argument, Callaghan served his time. Callaghan is concerned that Frank Tucker wants revenge and an unsettling meeting with the crime boss leans against that theory, and yet Callaghan still has the uneasy feeling that he’s being followed.

Tucker looked beyond Danny Callaghan, as though looking into the past. “Brendan and me, he was, what–about fifteen years older. He saw himself as a sort of uncle, I suppose. He was my cousin and I loved him, but what Brendan did best was throw shapes. He got a swanky car, swanky clothes, jewelry, bodyguards. You could quote any line from Scarface and he’d do the whole scene for you.” Tucker’s tone changed. “Too tall to be Pacino, though. Too fat, and too dumb. Brendan talked to the crime hacks from the Sunday papers, made himself out to be a big player. But everyone knew that Brendan would eventually fuck up. He did a bit of boxing early on, wasn’t much good at it but he knew how to push people around. Hardly a week went by he didn’t beat the shit out of someone. No way to build a business. Attracts the wrong kind of attention. And sooner or later—-“

To Frank Tucker, Callaghan is old business. While Callaghan worries that the past has yet to catch up with him, he doesn’t realize that he’s stumbled into the middle of a gang war where the vicious Lar Mackendrick is seen as “low-hanging fruit.”

If this were the Godfather, we’d be talking about gang members going to the mattresses, but here we see gang members picked off and brutally slaughtered–sometimes gleefully by the rival gang. This is an unpleasant bunch of characters who think nothing of beating some one to death and have fun doing it. Feeling he has little choice, Callaghan is dragged into the ongoing war and forced to cooperate, but still he struggles against an uneasy conscience. 

Emphasizing the predictability of character and the impossibility of escape in given circumstances,  Dark Times in the City is hard-boiled crime, and author Gene Kerrigan tries to balance the brutal darkness of this tale with moments of sentimentality involving Callaghan and various people he cares about. This balancing act may work for some readers who need to feel that there are some good, decent people in the world, but the moments of sentimentality work against the novel’s bleak, hard-core centre. That said, the pizza episode (and I’ll give no more away) nails how the lives of ordinary people are shockingly subsumed into the dark world that exists just out of sight in the margins of society. Ultimately, this is a page-turner which I would have preferred to see without its sentimental moments.  The two mega-crime bosses are well pitched towards one another–both intent on the destruction of the other, and, of course in the post-boom collapse, there’s only room for one crime family, and the most savage will win and the weak, I’m thinking the weasely character of Walter Bennett, will be crushed. Frank Tucker is seen as the new face of crime in a country that’s still defining itself:

The North was still leaking blood, and the South’s middleclass aspirations and distaste for the excesses of nationalism came together to create a fashion in housing estates with English labels–Sherwood Park, Tudor Heights, Balmoral Lawns. That was before the economic boom and the winding down of the Northern bloodletting encouraged the middle classes to adopt a bit of the old nationalist swagger.

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Kinds of Love, Kinds of Death by Donald Westlake

I’m a Donald Westlake fan, but it’s been some time since I read one of his books.  I don’t know about all the other readers out there, but when I return to an old favourite after a significant gap of time, I am reminded all over again why I like a particular author, and then I ask myself why it took me so long to return to a writer who is practically a ‘sure bet.’ Specifically, I’m talking about Kinds of Love, Kinds of Death which is the first entry in the Mitchell Tobin mystery series originally written by Westlake using the pseudonym Tucker Coe. Westlake, who died in 2008, was an extremely prolific author, and to be honest I’ve lost track of just how many names he used over his long varied career. I was delighted to come across another series character, and fans of Westlake will understand what I’m talking about when I say that readers of this author’s novels become die-hard fans of  Westlake’s series characters.

kinds of Love kinds of deathThe protagonist of Kinds of Love, Kinds of Death is a disgraced former New York police officer, Mitchell Tobin, fired from the force, and now unemployed. His wife, Kate works at a local five-and-dime and her meagre wages along with their diminishing savings keep the family afloat. Meanwhile, Tobin is using his energy to build a wall at his home. It’s back-breaking work, and there’s the sense that it’s both a physical punishment and a mindless distraction. Where did Tobin’s life go wrong? Now 39, he was a  member of NYPD for 18 years before being kicked out. In his 14th year as a police officer, he met Linda, the wife of a burglar named Dink:

But the story tips itself right there, doesn’t it? On first seeing Linda’s name in print you know that I am destined to go to bed with her, knowledge that did not come to me until over a year later, when Dink had already been tried and convicted and was in the process of serving a term that at its shortest must last fifteen years. But it is impossible for me to communicate the knowledge to you as it came to me, in slow revelations, in tiny sunbursts of awareness, in gradual dependence and increasing need and a feeling that developed so slowly it was there long before either of us was fully aware of it, a feeling of inevitability. None of the rationalizing mist which so delightfully blinded me is available now to blind you; you must see it in a cold harsh light, a cheap and nasty bit of adultery with the most tasteless and degrading overtones.

I won’t spoil the story by giving any more details of what went wrong in Tobin’s life, but here he is, still with his wife, Kate and their only child, feeling a crippling sense of guilt. Tobin is busy working on the wall when he’s approached, through a lowly intermediary, about a job for gangster Ernie Rembek, an “amiable czar in a two hundred dollar suit.” It’s ostensibly a bit of detective work, but Tobin doesn’t have a PI license. Rembek who  “needs somebody to do a cop-type job,” wants to employ Tobin for his detective skills and also there’s the  unsavoury, unspoken idea that, since the case involves adultery, perhaps Tobin is the perfect man for the job. Tobin would like to tell Rembek to get lost, but Rembek makes an offer that Tobin is in no position to refuse. Tobin feels awkward working for a gangster, so he sets some hard and fast rules which lay the ground work for how he’ll treat his client and the case. Tobin may be a disgraced ex-cop, but he’s heavy on integrity:

Years ago I gave up being bitter about the comparative incomes of successful crooks and successful cops; it’s a cheap and irrelevant comparison anyway, since wealth is the goal of the crook but presumably something else is the goal of the cop.

Tobin is hired to find Rembek’s mistress, Rita Castle, a bit-part actress who’s flown the love-nest taking a large chunk of Rembek’s cash for her trouble. She’s left behind a cruel note to her ex-sugar daddy, but Rembek, still smitten, wants her back. Since there’s every reason to believe that she’s run off with someone Rembek knows (and that means another member of “The Corporation” ), whoever investigates needs to ask delicate questions and keep his mouth shut about the answers. That’s where Tobin comes in.

I studied my reactions to the job I’d been offered. The job itself required no study; if it contained no elements other than those already described to me, it was a plain and honest piece of work. I might or might not be capable of handling it, but legally and morally I could have no qualms about it.

No, it wasn’t the job that was complicated, it was my reaction to it. To a large extent I wanted to make believe the offer had never come along, I wanted to go back to work on my wall and think of nothing but dirt and bricks and concrete block. But in a small corner of my mind I felt a certain excitement, almost eagerness about the job; it would be a kind of return to the life I’d lost, a task within my competence, and I couldn’t help feeling a degree of hunger for it.

This quote gives a taste of the sort of narrator Mitch is. He knows that he can never repair what happened in his past, and painfully honest about his errors and responsibilities, Mitch partly wants to be punished and remain in a state of disgrace. The job with Rembek offers some tantalizing possibilities that go far beyond the generous monetary compensation; the job is also a way to gain back some self-respect, and Tobin, who’s too hard on himself to allow for any self-pity or self-delusion, knows that he owes it to his family to do something about the mess his life has become.

Kinds of Love, Kinds of Death is the first of 5 Mitch Tobin novels, and it’s an extremely strong start (could Westlake do anything less?). Westlake creates an incredibly strong and interesting protagonist, a troubled man immersed in his own tangled problems–a man who’s thrown a lifeline from an improbable and questionable source. Tobin, of course, takes the job, as we knew he would, and he proves to be an excellent detective. He learns that the men in “The Corporation” had “wifey time,” and this means public events they attended with their wives, but then there’s the rest of the time when the gangsters trooped out their expensive mistresses and partied. While Rita Castle acted like the “original dumb bunny” and seemed to be little more than a “feeble-minded” dumb blonde out for whatever cash from whichever besotted middle-aged admirer she could hook, Tobin begins to suspect that Rita Castle was not what she appeared. One look at the bookshelf next to her bed tells Tobin that Rita was anything but dumb. She was sharp and manipulative coming on to Rembek’s acquaintances,  employees and business associates whenever Rembek’s back was turned. According to the chauffeur she was “dangerous,” and according to another gangster, Rembek couldn’t see what was obvious to everyone else:

When a man buys something new and shiny, and he loves it very much, you don’t tell him he got a lemon.

Anyway, I’m hooked, and I’m in for the series

Kinds of Love, Kinds of Death

Murder Among Children

Wax Apple

A Jade in Aries

Don’t Lie to Me

review copy

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No Orchids for Miss Blandish: James Hadley Chase (1939)

“From now on, you’re going to wear mink, baby.”

No Orchids for Miss Blandish  (1939) by James Hadley Chase has been on the reading radar for some time. I saw the film version in 2010 and then Emma, from Book Around the Corner reviewed the book here. After seeing the film version, and reading the controversy about the book, I thought I was prepared. I wasn’t. The book is far darker, far more unpleasant, so if you like your crime books bleak, nasty and downright unsavoury, then you might want to check out No Orchids for Miss Blandish.

No orchids for miss BlandishThe story begins with a couple of cheap crooks, Bailey and Old Sam, stopping at a gas station on the way to Kansas City. Old Sam is sleeping, so Bailey, worried about money and even contemplating robbing a bank if things don’t look up soon, steps inside the diner for a Scotch. Bailey and Old Sam form an ad-hoc gang with a sleaze ball named Riley as the brains of the operation. It’s slim pickings for these trio of bottom-feeders. The lucrative jobs are too big and complex for their slipshod 3 man operation, and that leave the petty jobs that don’t yield much. It seems to be a lucky break when tipster fat Heinie, a “leg man for a society rag that ran blackmail on the side” waddles into the diner and mentions that multi millionaire Blandish is throwing a party for his daughter’s 24th birthday. Her gift will be the family diamonds and after the party at the Blandish mansion, she’ll move on to the Golden Slipper nightclub with her boyfriend, Jerry MacGowan. Bailey keys onto the fact that the couple and the diamond necklace will be alone and vulnerable. Heinie warns him off any thoughts of knocking off the necklace as Bailey and Riley “aren’t big enough to handle a job like that.”  But to Bailey, the job sounds like a cinch: Waylay a society dame and her cream puff escort then grab the diamonds. Simple.

Bailey takes the idea to Riley, the head of the gang, and a man in Bailey’s opinion who spends “too much time in the sack with that broad of his,” a cheap, mouthy striptease dancer named Anna. The plan is to go to The Golden Slipper while Miss Blandish is slumming and then follow the couple, waylaying them along the route, and making a fast smash and grab. But the plan goes wrong and morphs into a kidnapping, and then bad luck sends members of the vicious Grisson gang into their path….

The Grisson gang, considered by other crooks as “good third-raters,” is led by Ma Grisson–a tough as nails, “big, grossly fat and lumpy”  woman  who sounds as clever, mean and evil as the FBI fabricated-for-the-media version of Ma Barker. (This can’t be coincidence as the author, James Hadley Chase was supposedly influenced by the tale of the Barker Gang when he wrote No Orchids for Miss Blandish.) Ma Grisson sees the Blandish heiress as means of becoming the “richest, the most powerful, and the most wanted public enemies of Kansas City.” In other words, the Blandish girl is a ticket out of the small-time, and with a prize like that Ma Grisson is willing to take some risks.

Some of the novel includes the dynamics between the various gang members. There’s an unlicensed alcoholic doctor, “Doc” who comes in handy when the boys need stitching up, Eddie who “wouldn’t have been bad looking, but” for the cast in his eye, Flynn, Woppy and finally Ma’s son, the dysfunctional, psychotic, and none too clean Slim Grisson, the man with a taste for knives.

He was tall, reedy and pasty-faced. His loose, half-open mouth, his vacant, glassy eyes made him look idiotic, but a ruthless, inhuman spirit hid behind the idiot’s mask.

Slim Grisson’s background was typical of a pathological killer. He had always been lazy at school, refusing to take the least interest in book work. He began early to want money. He was sadistic and several times had been caught torturing animals. By the time he was eighteen, he had begun to develop homicidal tendencies. By then, his mental equipment had degenerated. There were times when he would be normal to the point of being quick-witted, but most times he behaved like an idiot.

Slim is barely held in check by his mother who “refused to believe that there was anything wrong with him.” So there’s an inherent, festering sore in the gang’s power structure: Slim is out-of-control and yet his mother refuses to reign him in. It’s with the introduction of Miss Blandish into the equation that the power balance within the gang changes.

More gangs have come to grief through a woman than through the cops.

The novel’s violence is swift, merciless and sadistic. The 1948 film version of the novel played like some sort of deranged love story, and that glamoured up what’s really at play here. After all, there are some things worse than death….

No orchids for miss Blandish 1961James Hadley Chase (real name René Brabazon Raymond) was British but chose to set this, his first novel in America, a country he’d yet to visit. Now to the question of versions:  Chase revised the novel in 1961, and I have two versions: a kindle version and a print version which are quite different. The kindle version, originally from Harlequin books, refers to television and Slim being a television addict (“He never grew tired of watching the moving pictures on the twenty-one inch screen.“) The kindle version says 1939 on the front but the Harlequin edition was published in 1951.  The out-of-place reference to televisions in the 1930s is absent in my Bruin Crimeworks edition, and the Amazon description of this book says it’s the 1961 updated version, but inside the book there’s a page “note to the reader” which says that this version is “yet a further update” to the 1961 update. So how many versions are there?

The revised print version from Bruin Crimeworks is even nastier (read “embellished,” and here’s just a taste–a scene which isn’t so detailed in the earlier kindle version. BTW, I blotted out the victim’s name in order to not spoil the plot suspense for potential readers:

“I’m giving it to you there,” Slim said, pricking the shuddering flesh with his knife. “Right in the guts, *****, and you’re going to take a mighty long time to croak. I know just where to stick you.”

“Come on, Slim! You wouldn’t do that to me. I’m a stand up guy, don’t I keep telling you? You know me. You ain’t gonna cut me like that. No! Slim! …No!… For Christ’s sake…Jesus, God…Don’t do me, Slim!”

Slim, still grinning, held the knife-point just below *****’s navel and put his weight on the handle. The knife went in slowly as if it were going into butter. ***** drew his lips back. His mouth opened. There was a long hiss of expelled breath as he stood there. Tears sprang from his eyes. Slim stepped back, leaving the black hilt of the knife growing out of ***** like a horrible malformation. ***** began to give low, quavering cries. His knees were buckling but the cord held him up so that the blade slowly cut deeper inside him.

Slim sat on the grass a few feet away and gave himself a cigarette. He pushed his hat over his eyes and squinted at *****.

“Take your time, Pal. We ain’t in a hurry.” He gave him a crooked smile as his fingers traced the sky. “Ain’t them clouds pretty?”

And here’s the same scene in the kindle version:

Slim looked over at ***** who shut his eyes. A horrible croaking sound came from him. Slim cleaned his knife by driving it into the ground. The he straightened.

“*****…” he said softly.

****** opened his eyes.

“Don’t kill me, Slim.” he panted. “Gimme a break! Don’t kill me!”

Slim grinned. The moving slowly through the patch of sunlight, he approached the cringing man.

The book has been made into two film versions: No Orchids for Miss Blandish (1948) and The Grissom Gang (1971). Pick your poison.

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Live by Night by Dennis Lehane

“The night,” Joe said. “Tastes too good. You live by day, you play by their rules. So we live by night and play by ours.”

While I watched the film Mystic River and enjoyed it, I’ve always passed on Dennis Lehane novels, but his latest, Live By Night sounded too good to miss. The book, which screams for a film adaptation, is the story of a gangster, Joe Coughlin, the son of a prominent Boston police officer. Just as I finished the book, I read that Leonardo DiCaprio’s production company bought the film rights. I hope that DiCaprio takes the main role as he’d be my pick for Joe Coughlin.

The book begins very strongly and drops us right in the action with Joe about to meet his death:

Some years later, on a tugboat in the Gulf of Mexico, Joe Coughlin’s feet were placed in a tub of cement. Twelve gunmen stood waiting until they got far enough out to sea to throw him overboard, while Joe listened to the engine chug and watched the water churn white at the stern. And it occurred to him that almost everything of note that had ever happened in his life–good or bad–had been set in motion the morning he first crossed paths with Emma Gould.

Now with an opening like that, how can you not continue?

From this point, the novel goes back in time and the story picks up in 1926, with Joe, a 19-year-old hood who works for bootlegger Tim Hickey, knocking off a speakeasy with the Bartolo brothers. Joe is initially unaware that the joint belongs to Hickey’s arch-enemy Albert White, and he’s also unaware that the cool, unflappable girl who serves the drinks, Emma Gould, is also Albert’s mistress. Joe is too young and too smitten to read the danger signals:

Behind Emma’s pale eyes and pale skin lay something coiled and caged. And not caged in a way that it wanted to come out. Caged in a way that demanded nothing come in.

It’s with the introduction of Emma that we see Joe’s major character traits–both the flaws and the weaknesses as he makes decisions that will come back to haunt him for the rest of his life. Live By Night is the bio of Joe who eventually becomes a major Irish-American gangster–or outlaw as he prefers to be called. Joe’s life is defined by its times, so the backdrop to Joe’s illegal life is the fallout from the 1919 Boston Police Strike which devastated Joe’s family, Prohibition and the Depression. While Joe’s former Boston Police force brothers have been cast adrift by the strike, Joe has taken another path entirely, and at thirteen, he was a ‘juvenile delinquent,’ knocking off newsstands with his partners-in-crime, the Bartolo brothers. Joe makes the choice to “live by night” and doesn’t see too great a difference between supposedly legal and illegal lives, and gradually he builds an empire, an illegal life built in response to the times.

There are a couple of times throughout the novel when it’s not certain whether Joe will survive, and so it’s evidence of the novel’s strengths that the scenes are packed with tension even though that we know on the first page that he has survived at least several decades. The plot, packed with some great scenes, is arguably stronger for about the first half of the novel as Joe struggles to survive through various hostile situations, and as Lehane illustrates, through Joe’s choices, we see that character is fate.

“Someone else–a real good egg of a fella–will stand up for you in the yard or in the mess hall. And after he backs the other man down, he’ll offer you his protection for the length of your sentence. Joe? Listen to me. That’s the man you hurt. You hurt him so he can’t get strong enough to hurt you. You hurt him so he can’t get strong enough again to hurt you. You take his elbow or his kneecap. Or both.”

After the halfway point, for this reader, the novel’s pacing slowed down, and the second half of the novel is dominated by a love story. While I still enjoyed the tale of a gangster’s genesis shaped by the excesses and lucrative vices buried deep in the repressive layers of American culture, and the faithful creation of a flawed man, there’s a tiny bit of moralizing that creeps in here as he faces off not just other gangs but the KKK and religious nutcases, so that Joe becomes an iconic figure, wise, just, and meting out decisions that would have made Solomon wonder if he’d done the right thing. It’s just a bit overdone, and for this reader, Joe’s not a ruthless enough creation. We see Joe, an intelligent character make choices that are not always the smartest but which are pivotal to his character. There’s part of Joe, no matter how succesful he becomes, that’s uncomfortable with the uglier side of his life, but Joe chooses to bury those aspects of his profession, and the author follows suit. There’s nothing wrong with that, but this is undermined by having Joe as the most self-actualized character in the novel, and the result is a dissonance that introduces character credibility issues.  That complaint aside, I can see this will make a brilliant film.

Live by Night is flawed but I’d hazard a guess that the flaws won’t deter Lehane fans, and I would certainly read another novel by this author. Apparently Lehane’s earlier novel The Given Day (called the author’s opus by some of his fans) includes the story of Joe’s family against the backdrop of Boston history, and after finishing Live by Night, I bought the earlier novel.

Review copy

 

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Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye: Horace McCoy (1948)

“She was tremendous, all right, but at the wrong time and in the wrong places.”

The next time someone starts waffling on about the ‘good old days,’ tell them to go read Horace McCoy’s novel, Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye. That should take care of their nostalgia. Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye, full of bleak despair and the illusion that the big time is right around the next corner for its doom-laden characters, reminds us that violence has always existed in the spectrum of human behaviour.  

Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye is narrated by Ralph Cotter, a hardened convict who’s serving time, and when we meet  him, he’s just about to break out of jail with fellow prisoner Toko. McCoy’s details convey the horror of convict life: the frantic queues for the toilets, the over-worked chemical privys, rotten smells, hints of prison rape, and the way in which Cotter addresses the guards as “my liege,” “me-lord,” “Sire,” “master” and “majesty.” Cotter wakes up on the morning of the prison break chained to his bunk in a fetid crude dorm room along with 71 other prisoners. Toko’s sister, Holiday, has bribed someone to hide weapons in the cantaloupe patch where the prisoners work unchained, and she’s included Cotter in the escape plan simply because she’s concerned that Toko doesn’t have the guts to carry it through.

McCoy grounds the book in 1933 with the Akron disaster, so we are firmly in the gangster era. The book starts strongly with Cotter playing it cool as the day begins. Toko, a bundle of nerves, almost blows the plan, but Cotter desperate to escape (and just what is going on with the “sickly sodomist“in the next bunk?) carries the day, and in a blaze of machine gun fire, Cotter makes his escape. So what does Cotter, a man who thinks Karpis, Baby Face Nelson and Dillinger are all amateurs, do with his freedom? The novel continues with the saga of Cotter’s post prison life on the run, and it isn’t pretty. The problems begin with the debt Cotter has accrued from the club-footed garage owner, Mason, the man who supplied the getaway car and the guns, and the problems continue with Toko’s sister, machine-gun toting, bed-hopping, “pure animal” Holiday. Cotter embarks on a brutal crime spree, and a brush with two crooked cops only fuels his desire for money. Along the way, there’s blackmail, vicious heists committed with stunning violence, and no less than two duplicitous women.

McCoy crafts Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye in such a way that we begin not knowing just what Cotter is capable of. All he wants is freedom and fresh air for a change, but as the novel wears on, Cotter’s savagery is gradually revealed through his numerous cold-blooded killings. There are no good guys here. Everyone does what they can to get ahead and if that means slaughtering or sleeping your way to a few extra bucks, then McCoy’s characters are fine with that. While Cotter is clear-minded and direct with his criminal actions, he’s a little messed up when it comes to women, and to complicate matters there are two very different women who think they own a piece of Cotter. Here’s the sexually rapacious Holiday and Cotter:


She grabbed me by the shoulders of my coat, clutching the padding and poking her face almost against mine. “What’s the matter? You run out of places to go?”

“Please…” I said. “I’ve had enough melodrama for one day.”

“Me sitting here in this stinking apartment all day…”

“Please,” I said, “I’m exhausted.”

“Oh, so you’re exhausted! From what! Being lumped up in the sack with that bitch all afternoon?”

“Please,” I said. “I’m hot and sweaty and in no mood to fight.” I tried to take her hands off my shoulder but she was holding too tightly. Her eyes were wide and rabid and her lips were thin. “I’ve been with Mandon. You’re the only bitch I’ve seen today. Honest.”

She snorted and then without warning she clawed at my face. I caught this hand and knocked the other one from my shoulder and slapped her across the nose. But she wanted to be tough. She growled in her throat and raised both arms to grab me around the neck, and I slugged her on the side of the head, knocking her down. I reached and lifted her dress and tugged at it between my hands and finally managed to tear off a hunk. She lay on her back, looking up at me, her eyes smouldering, fully conscious, but saying nothing. With the hunk of her dress, I wiped the spittle from my face, and then threw the rag at her and went into the bedroom, closing the door.

Goddamn it, I thought regretfully; but this clawing business had to stop and that was the only way to stop it, the only way. She’s a goddamn savage, this dame is, a real primitive, and the only way to teach her something is to knock her on her ass. Well, she’s sure as hell come to the right place….

Cotter and Holiday make a hellish team: he solves his problems with violence, and she seals her deals with sex.  

While not as disciplined a novel as They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (there’s some redundancy), Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye is a classic American noir, packed with hard-boiled desperate characters, but there’s something very different about McCoy. Here’s a scene of Cotter in a gay bar. At first he feels uncomfortable and then has a significant moment of revelation:

The noxiousness and disgust I had felt a few moments earlier were gone, my own strength and virility, of which I was so proud when I entered, with which I could prove our difference, now served to emphasize our sameness. We all had a touch of twilight in our souls; in every man there are homosexual tendencies, this is immutable, there is no variant, the only variant is the depth of the latency, but in me these tendencies were not being stirred, even faintly, they were there, but this was not stirring them. No. The sameness was of the species, of the psyche, of the  … They were rebels too, rebels introverted; I was a rebel extroverted–theirs was the force that did not kill, mine was the force that did kill…

Quite a statement for a book published in 1948, and another reason I love noir for its presentation of an alternate world in opposition to mainstream society. For film buffs, Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye was made into a film starring James Cagney and one of my favourite lost Hollywood stars, Barbara Payton.

Review copy from the publisher, Open Road Media

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Filed under Fiction, McCoy Horace