Tag Archives: noir fiction

High Priest of California: Charles Willeford (1953)

“By nine am the next morning, the sun decide to burn its way through the clouds and let San Francisco take a look at it.”

Used Car salesmen are apparently the High Priest[s] of California, or at least that’s the idea in Charles Willeford’s dark noir novel. The High Priest in this case is San-Francisco based Russell Haxby, a sleazy predator who looks for easy sex and easy marks. And in this world, there’s no shortage of either. Haxby is a strange character. He appears to be-laid back and easy going, but erase that image and think instead of a predator who takes his sweet time tenderizing his prey, and that’s closer to Haxby’s real nature.

The novel opens with a bored Haxby out on the prowl at a dance hall “where men come to pick up something and women come to be picked up.” At first, there seem to be no likely prospects, but he spies an attractive shapely woman in a red suit and asks her to dance. One thing leads to another, and Haxby takes the woman, Alyce, for dinner and drinks. He “pumps” her about her living situation, and after discovering that she lives with an older, female cousin, Ruthie, Haxby thinks this will be a “cinch.” Once inside her apartment, Haxby is repelled. The place smells like a “zoo,” or more precisely of cat, several tomcats, which Alyce subsequently introduces to Haxby. Haxby decides that Alyce is “too weird” for him, but partly because he’s bored and partly because he doesn’t have any other better prospects, Haxby relentlessly, gradually, dissolves Alyce’s resistance to any form of intimate, physical contact. She’s a “new type,” for Haxby. In time, Haxby learns Alyce’s big secret which explains her reluctance to have any sort of relationship, and her apparent abhorrence of sex. But her indifference to sex and fundamental naivete merely eggs Haxby on.

Given that this is written by Charles Willeford, I expected murder around the corner. Haxby is a violent man who vents his pent-up frustrations, sexual and otherwise, on lowly males who won’t put up a defense. At the same time, he listens to classical music to soothe the beast within, and reads James Joyce. Willeford skillfully describes a sleazy world which is ruled by the meanest, unscrupulous people who prey on the weak. Haxby is a predator, circling Alyce until her scruples simply wear down. At one point, he considers unzipping her housecoat but decides it would be “too easy.” Part of the fun for Haxby is seducing Alyce with murmurs of love everlasting, and watching her swallow his spiel.

We see Haxby on the car lot, flipping prices on various heaps, and waiting for returning servicemen with deep pockets to buy without too many questions. Alyce’s cousin, Ruthie, an older blowsy woman, is seeing a married man who is waiting for his invalid wife to die. He’s not much of a prize, but Ruthie has put the time in to the relationship and expects the pay off soon. There’s no room for tenderness. Innocence… well that’s a sign of weakness.

Women don’t eat much, foolish, foolish. I believe a person should take advantage of anything that gives them pleasure. When you figure that this rock we’re living on is spinning around once a day, every day, 365 spins a year, and with each day you get a day older. What the hell does an extra inch or two around the waistline mean? An extra inch or two, period.

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The Glass Heart: Marty Holland (1946)

“Women always take one look at me and go back to their husbands.”

Marty Holland (1919-1971) doesn’t seem to be remembered these days. There’s very little about her on Wikipedia. Her first novel, Fallen Angel, was adapted for the screen and starred Dana Andrews and Linda Darnell. The File on Thelma Jordan was based on one of Holland’s unpublished stories. The Glass Heart is a grimy, hard-boiled tale of lust, murder and blackmail (sign me up, baby) but unfortunately, the dark, hard centre of this novel slides into conformity, tinged with sentimentality, towards the end.

Curt Blair, an unemployed petty thief, hangs out in restaurants and makes a marginal, opportunistic living.

It was one of those ritzy has joints in Beverly Hills, away from the hoi polloi. Fancy lace tablecloths, demi-tases, and waitresses in pink organdy outfits. One of those places. I was sitting up at the counter, sipping coffee, puffing on a cigarette, soaking in the warmth of the room, and glancing now and then through the draped window at the rain outside. It was raining like hell. No ordinary downpour: heavy, splotchy drops–the way it rains in California.

Curt steals a customer’s expensive camel hair coat, but he’s spotted and chased. He runs into a gated garden, hoping to hide, but the owner thinks he’s her new handyman. Curt decides to stay, in spite of the nastiness of the bossy owner, Virginia Block. She lists all the work she expects him to do–he’ll live at the house and be responsible for the general upkeep of the house, car repair, gardening etc, and all for twenty dollars a week. Curt considers telling her to shove it–especially when he sees his tiny, filthy room, but when he thinks of the police, he decides it wouldn’t be a bad idea to lay low for a few days.

That was the plan, but Curt didn’t factor in Virginia who calls herself a “defenseless old woman,” and “a woman alone,” but in reality, she’s a penny-pinching, shrewd slave-driver. Crafty Virginia owes money all over town, and one of Curt’s many jobs is to lie to bill collectors. When Curt finds out that Virginia’s husband disappeared, he’s not surprised. Curt rationalises that the absent husband probably couldn’t take the heat any longer and escaped. Curt should move on, but he sniffs that the old lady has money and that if he plays the game, he could be living on easy street. The old lady, by the way is fifty. Curt starts laying on the compliments and Virginia gets skittish with the flattery. Enter a female lodger, a would-be actress, Lynn Cook, and all of Curt’s intentions to smooch Virginia are thrown out of the window.

What was it about the dame that sent my fever up? Chemistry? Or whatever you call it. This one really had it, whatever it was.

Another female lodger, Elsie, moves in. Soon Curt is blackmailing Virginia concerning the whereabouts of her missing husband, and then passing on the proceeds to both of the female lodgers. Curt admits “I’ve always been a sucker that way. I can’t say no to a pretty dame!” This toxic situation can’t last forever, and Curt is playing with fire.

Written with great snappy dialogue, the plot oozes noir. Curt’s involvement with three women is a perfect scenario for noir, but the plot backs off from the darkest descent. There’s a light touch in Curt’s relationships and his marshmallow attitude towards young attractive women. Ultimately the book’s hard edge disappears almost as if the author was reluctant to take the plot to its logical, dark consequences. Still, I’m glad I read this. Virginia is a great (nasty) character.

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Nightmare Alley: William Lindsay Gresham (1946)

“Nothing matters in this goddamned lunatic asylum of a world but dough.”

William Lindsay Gresham’s powerful, bleak, fate-laden, noir novel Nightmare Alley follows the rise and fall of Stanton Carlisle, a man whose talents take him to the top of his game, but whose character leads him to destruction. When the novel opens, Stanton is a young carny worker. He works as an assistant to the “seeress” Madame Zeena, and while his questions may seem to reveal naivete, in reality Stanton is absorbing his environment, learning the tricks of the trade, grasping the complexities of human nature. At the carnival, there are some talented performers, others that fill a spot, but perhaps the most perplexing ‘act’ is ‘the Geek,’ in a ten-cent “attraction.” The Geek is touted as a man/beast, and to demo this, he crawls around in a pit and bites the heads off of live chickens. Stanley can’t imagine anyone wanting to be a geek, and wonders how the act is created. The owner, who also is ‘the talker’ (announcing the acts to the gullible marks) explains how geeks are ‘made.’

You pick up a guy and he ain’t a geek-he’s a drunk. A bottle-a-day booze fool. You tell him like this: ‘I got a little job for you. It’s a temporary job. We got to get a new geek. So until we do you’ll put on the geek outfit and fake it.‘ You tell him, ‘You don’t have to do nothing. You’ll have a razor blade in your hand and when you pick up the chicken you give it a nick with the blade and then make like you’re drinking the blood. Same with rats. The marks don’t know no different.‘”

Hoately ran his eye up and down the midway, sizing up the crowd. He turned back to Stan. “Well, he does this for a week and you see to it that he gets his bottle regular and a place to sleep it off in. He likes this fine. This is what he thinks is heaven. So after a week you say to him like this, you say, ‘Well, I got to get me a real geek. You’re through.’ He scares up at this because nothing scares a real rummy like the chance of a dry spell and getting the horrors. He says, ‘What’s the matter? Ain’t I doing okay?’ So you say, ‘Like crap you’re doing okay. You can’t draw no crowd faking a geek. Turn in your outfit. You’re through.’ Then you walk away. He comes following you, begging for another chance and you say, ‘Okay. But after tonight out you go.’ But you give him his bottle.

That night you drag out the lecture and lay it on thick. All the while you’re talking he’s thinking about sobering up and getting the crawling shakes. You give him time to think it over, while you’re talking. Then throw in the chicken. He’ll geek.

This early powerful scene is emblematic of the entire plot: degradation is a process in a world in which nothing is what it seems; discover a person’s weakness and you have power over them.

“Human nature is the same everywhere. All have the same troubles. They are worried. Can control anybody by finding out what he’s afraid of. Works with question-answering act. Think out things most people are afraid of and hit them right where they live. Health, Wealth, Love. And Travel and Success. They’re all afraid of ill health, of poverty, of boredom, of failure. Fear is the key to human nature. They’re afraid. …”

Stan looked up past the pages to the garish wallpaper and through it into the world. The geek was made by fear. He was afraid of sobering up and getting the horrors. But what made him a drunk? Fear. Find out what they’re afraid of and sell it back to them. That’s the key. The key!

Madam Zeena, is a good-hearted married woman, who sticks by her drunken sot of a husband, but she’s happy to have young Stanton on the side. The problem is that Stanton, true to his nature, isn’t happy with these occasional trysts. He wants Zeena all the time, and so a maneuver by Stanton leaves Zeena a widow. This is the first awful act that Stanton commits, and while he’s afraid his actions will be discovered, he justifies himself. Yet now that Stanton has Zeena full-time, he casts his eyes on younger prey, and moves on young, malleable Molly, a sort of orphaned carny mascot whose freak show act as Electric Girl involves her, barely dressed, receiving electric shocks.

Stanton’s character, horribly flawed and twisted, is revealed throughout the novel in his subsequent actions and decisions. He steals, he manipulates, he defrauds, and he murders. He’s a terrible person, but yet not wholly unsympathetic. (I counted the decent things he did.) He’s damaged and haunted by his childhood and plagued by nightmares. Life is a Nightmare Alley, we are all pursued by our demons. Ever since he was a kid Stan had a recurring nightmare:

He was running down a dark alley, the buildings vacant and menacing on either side. Far down at the end of it a light burned, but there was something behind him, getting closer until he woke up trembling and never reached the light.

The novel follows Stanton on his path to success. From the carnival’s sideshows, he moves onto mentalism, and then he morphs into the Reverend Carlisle–seeped in spiritualism, he’s ready to conjure up the dead for the grieving wealthy. But Stanton, never satisfied, is restless for more. Stan’s demons both drive him and haunt him throughout the book, yet when he confronts them, he’s so traumatized by the experience, he, in his weakness, seeks out the professional help of succubus Dr. Lilith Ritter.

The 1930s world of Nightmare Alley is a ugly place: as the title implies, it’s a nightmarish place–beginning with the carnival that exploits its employees and its audience, but the real nightmare here is life and human nature. With most of the characters in the book, human flaws gnaw from within. Stanton brings on his own downfall, and it’s inevitable.

The novel, structured in chapters which are represented by Tarot cards, was slow to start. This novel was banned and its sexual frankness and ugly view of the world is shocking for its times. Unforgettable.

“The rest of them drink something else: they drink promises. They drink hope. And I’ve got it to hand them.”

After reading this, I listened to the audiobook version which is marvelously read by Peter Berkrot

Own a copy/review copy

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Meet Me at the Morgue: Ross Macdonald (1953)

“The things a man does are always connected in some way.”

In Ross Macdonald’s crime novel, Meet Me at the Morgue, parole officer Howard Cross runs into Fred Miner, a parolee. It’s an insignificant meeting and yet those few moments have serious ramifications. Miner is looking for Cross’s partner, but he’s gone from the office. Since Miner’s business isn’t with Cross, they exchange only a few words, but during that minute or so, Cross notices that Miner is accompanied by his employer’s small son, Jamie. Within hours, it appears that Miner has kidnapped the boy and is demanding a $50,000 ransom. It seems odd that Miner, in the midst of a kidnapping, would take a detour to visit his parole officer–especially in the company of the kidnapped boy.

In Meet Me at the Morgue, Cross assumes a PI role as he investigates the kidnapping. The kidnapped boy is the son of the very wealthy Abel Johnson, and his attractive oh-so-much-younger wife. The plot thickens when it turns out that Miner, a man of otherwise impeccable background, is on parole for vehicular manslaughter, but Miner doesn’t remember a thing about the accident as he was drunk at the time. Another curious fact, the dead man had no ID, and no one stepped forward to claim the body. Add yet another curious fact, Miner’s lawyer, Siefel is also the lawyer for the Johnson family. And apparently Cross’s assistant Ann is dating, Seifel, Johnson’s lawyer… well she’s trying to date him. But mummy gets getting in the way:

Her eyes were on her son like wet, black leeches. “It’s mean and selfish of you to keep me waiting like this. I didn’t devote my life to you in order to be cast aside whenever you feel the whim.”

“I’m sorry mother.”

“Indeed you should be sorry, you forced me to take a public bus down here.”

You could have taken a taxi.”

I can’t afford to pay taxi fare every day. You never think of my sacrifices, of course, but it has cost me an enormous amount of money to set you up in practice with Mr. Sturdyvant.”

“I realise that.” He looked at me miserably. His body seemed to have shrunk and taken on an adolescent awkwardness. “Can we drop the subject for now mother? I’m ready to drive you anywhere you’d like.”

She said with icy boredom, “finish your business, Lawrence. I’m in no hurry. In fact I’ve lost any interest I had in the party. I believe I feel a headache coming on.”

Please mother, don’t be like that.” He fumbled awkwardly reaching for her hand she turned away from him in a movement of disdainful coquetry and walked to the window on high sharp heels. I stepped into the elevator. The last I saw of his face it looked bruised and shapeless as if her Cuban heels had been hammering it.

The Johnsons decide to obey the kidnappers’ demands: not tell the police and hand over the money. The situation presents Cross with a moral dilemma. He knows that he should inform the police but he also feels obligated to respect the Johnsons’ wishes, but when a dead man is found with an ice pick sticking out of his neck, Cross brings in the police.

What’s that old saying, ‘all roads lead to Rome.’ The deeper Cross digs, things just don’t add up, and yet the same names keep connecting in bizarre ways. This fate-laden tale is a hellish journey for Cross, and the investigation is peppered with strong characterizations: unhappy wives, a controlling mother, a disappointed father, and an underage girl who has a great figure but not much in the brains department. Ross Macdonald’s (Kenneth Millar) intense descriptive powers add to this excellent tale, and as Cross continues his labyrinthine investigation, the human landscape yields glimpses of various versions of private hell–the private hell of poisonous relationships.

The car ground to a stop on the cinder shoulder, the shallow ditch was paved with empty cans. A Sulphur stench fouled the the air. On the rim of the plain against the cloudy reflection of the city, the oil derricks stood like watchtowers around a prison camp where nothing lived. I’d come to the wrong place at the wrong time and done the wrong thing.

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Endgame: Ahmet Altan

“Anybody else but me would have left. He would have shrugged off these strange twists of fate and left. But I chose to stay. A chain of coincidences. God creates them, but lets you decide how to live through them.” 

In Ahmet Altan’s brooding noir novel, Endgame, a crime writer on the hunt for a mountain home that will provide him with inspiration finds more than he bargained for. This frame story begins with the nameless writer sitting on a bench in a small remote Turkish town in the aftermath of a murder. Endgame then goes back in time to provide the back story to just how and why a man who writes about crime commits murder.

Our narrator isn’t a particularly successful writer, and his career, such as it is, has stalled when he travels to the Taurus Mountains “hoping to find a mountain village” where he could live and write. On the first leg of the journey, while flying in a plane, he meets a gorgeous woman named Zuhal. Later while driving on mountain roads he stops at a restaurant, and is served by the owner, Remzi. It’s a conversation with Remzi that seals the writer’s decision to stay in this coastal town: it’s a hot bed of crime with rival gangsters, including one named Oleander Ramiz, fighting over turf, murders occurring in broad daylight, a thriving marijuana industry, and rumours of buried treasure. And of course, since Zuhal lives here, her presence is an added incentive.

ENDGAME

Over time, our narrator, thanks to his innate and we could say reckless curiosity, becomes involved with local society and its secrets. He’s definitely drawn to trouble and part of that is fermented in his desire for women. Before long, the writer has hot online sex with Zuhal (there’s an entire online subculture that the locals disappear to every afternoon), and the online sex develops into same-room sex. Of course the writer is courting disaster with Zuhal, the former mistress of the local mayor–a man who has ties to organised crime.

Above ground the men were engaged in disputes over land, power struggles and murder while women ruled the town with their urgent, uncontrollable sexual desires. 

As if having sex with Zuhal isn’t dangerous enough, the writer also begins a tawdry sweaty affair with the mayor’s wife, a femme fatale figure who would definitely play one of those tacky bad blondes if this were film noir. But to complicate things even further, the writer also has sessions with the local prostitute, who because of her gangster customers, has been converted into a police informer.  In between juggling these three women, the writer still has the energy to eyeball his housekeeper when she bends over.

I have always sought the dark side of a woman’s heart, and when I find it I indulge, prepared to pay the price later on. 

Reading Endgame takes us into a different world, and yet the novel still has many of the signature elements of both crime and noir stories. There’s one scene when the writer is in Remzi’s restaurant, reading the newspaper and minding his own business (a habit he should learn to cultivate) when a murder takes place right in front of his eyes. The corrupt police chief, who drives a telltale Mercedes, conducts a cursory investigation, and it’s through this incident that the writer begins to grasp that life in this mountain town is conducted not by legal means but by those who have the power and the violence to enforce it.

Remzi acts as an interpreter of subtexts. At first the writer is ignorant of the local customs–since he’s stepped into a hotbed of murder and corruption, it takes him a while to work out who is on whose side and who is sleeping with who, but Remzi, a man who sees everything and understands the unspoken rules and the subtexts of seemingly innocuous or off beat remarks, interprets:

“I saw a sign back there, sea for sale,’ I said

‘Oleander wants to sell the beach.’ 

‘It’s his?’

‘How could the beach be his?’ he said. looking at me as if I was a fool.

‘Well, how can he sell it then?’ 

‘He can’t … But he wants to’

There are a lot of characters here, and it wasn’t initially easy to keep them straight–especially since the word ‘Bey’ popped up several times and it took me a while to understand it’s a form of Turkish address.  Once I got that, I stopped tripping over the names so much. The email exchanges between the writer and Zuhal were hard to wade through, and I found myself skimming over these.

Endgame allows a glimpse into a culture that is so foreign to the west, and yet oh so familiar when exploring greed, lust and murder. This is a slowburn novel, not a thriller, so be prepared to sit back and just enjoy the ride. The narrator’s commentary is laced with his laments to god. If this were an American noir novel, these railings to god would be our western railings at the cruelties of fate. I was initially bothered by these interruptions, but once I put them in their context, it made sense.

Translated by Alexander Dawe

Review copy

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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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The Wicked Go To Hell: Frédéric Dard (1956)

“It was an eerie spectacle, for the darkness obstructed the rest of the bodies so that the prisoners looked like the heads of fallen angels nailed to a backdrop of night, with their hands for wings.”

Pushkin Vertigo continues to publish some astonishing crime novels, and this is proved once more by a second Frédéric Dard novel, The Wicked Go To Hell which follows on the tail of Bird in a Cage. The Wicked Go To Hell follows the escape of two convicts–one a spy and one an undercover cop. There’s very little down time in this gripping tale, an exploration of identity and morality .

the-wicked-go-to-hell

The novel opens with a bureaucratic scene of a cop named Mérins meeting with his chief while groans of beating and torture taking place next door provide the incongruous background noise to what should be an office meeting. The man being beaten is a spy. He’s been interrogated five times, four times too many, according to the chief, but like many ideologues, the prisoner isn’t breaking. The chief has an alternate plan–he intends to place Mérins undercover in the same cell with the prisoner. They are supposed to buddy up and then plan an escape.

“We’ll lock you both up in the same jail cell… a tough one.. the sort of place that gives kindly old ladies the shivers. The pair of you will escape!

You’ll try to hole up somewhere and you’ll wait. The breakout will be big news. The head of the organization, knowing that his man has escaped, will want to get him back… At some point or other, he’ll break cover…Then, when you’ve got your hands on him…”

He made a chopping motion with the side of his hand. The gesture meant death.

‘Got it?”

The Chief expects that guards will be killed along the way, but hey, it’s all in the name of making the escape look authentic….

 

“Your second problem: the escape… Keep telling yourself, old son, that you’re acting unofficially.”

He repeated the word, spelling it out with great vehemence:

“Un-off-icially! The minute you leave the office I shall disown you! You know what that means?”

Sure I knew. He couldn’t help taking a sly sideways look at me.

“If you run into trouble, I won’t be able to lift a finger to help you, especially since escape won’t happen without breakages…”

The novel then shifts from the first person to the third–two freshly beaten men, handcuffed together, are thrown into a cell by a sadistic warden, where they join a third prisoner, a mute. The two new prisoners, Hal and Frank exchange names, but we don’t know which one is the undercover cop and which one is the spy. Each man expresses suspicion that the other has been planted in the cell as a “stool pigeon.”

Days of beatings pass in the airless, dank, dark prison; nights are full of screams, and then Hal and Frank hear that an execution of another prisoner is planned. They hatch a plan to escape on the day of the execution, and the plan gives them hope, raising their spirits:

They had grabbed it as they would a battering ram-and in fact their idea was itself a battering ram, with which they would try to smash down the gates….

I don’t think I’m spoiling anything to say the men escape, and that’s when the story really begins. ..

Although this is a novel about an escape, the atmosphere is incredibly claustrophobic–running from the dank, stinking cell to the outside world, the desperate men are chased and hunted, and exchange one hell for another.

In common with other titles in the Pushkin Vertigo line, The Wicked Go to Hell is an incredibly clever novel. Author Frédéric Dard deliberately blurs the lines between the ‘good’ and the ‘bad’ guys, stripping them of their identities so that we try to guess which one of the two men is the spy and which one is the undercover cop. All we have to judge them by is their current behaviour–which really is how we should see everyone–not by their uniforms or their status. Both men lose their identities as they become dehumanized prisoners. But then after the escape, we keep waiting for the reveal, and it comes, finally at the end of the wonderful story in which right and wrong blur into escape and survival. While both men begin this journey on opposite ends of the law, there’s a greater morality here in the bonds of friendship, debt and loyalty.

According to the afterword at the end of the book, Dard wrote 284 thrillers. I’m hoping that Pushkin mines this author’s work. The Wicked Go To Hell was made into a film. I’d love to see it.

review copy

translated by David Coward

Original title: Les Salauds en Enfer (1956)

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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.

Review copy/own a copy

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Do Me a Favour–Drop Dead: James Hadley Chase (1976)

Again as if we were planning to drown a cat. No emotion, no nothing. Once more the cold dead finger went up my spine.”

After reading (trying to read) a couple of books which were disappointing, I knew I had to cleanse my mind with an author who would be a good safe bet–someone guaranteed to get me back on track. I have a huge stack of James Hadley Chase titles here, and he was just the antidote I needed to cure my recent reading slump. But which one to pick? Do Me a Favour–Drop Dead fit my mood…

It’s the 70s, post Vietnam, and our narrator finds himself on a Greyhound bus travelling from Sacramento to San Francisco. A former Wall Street trader who served 5 years for embezzling funds, 38-year-old Keith Devery has been out of jail for 10 months now, “living rough,” and moving from one itinerant job to another. He meets a businessman named Joe Pinner, who guessing that Devery is indigent, invites him to stop at the small coastal town of Wicksteed and even points him towards an available job as a driving instructor. Devery who has just $59 in his pocket, no job, no contacts, and no place to go, agrees. Pinner tells Devery that Wicksteed is a “friendly little town,” and that description soon appears to come true.

Devery certainly falls on his feet. His new boss, the owner of the driving school, is a man whose bank robber son was killed during a botched crime, and probably because he couldn’t help his own son keep on the straight and narrow, he’s motivated to employ Devery. Devery’s run of bad luck seems to have changed. He has a job that pays $200 a week, and rents a very pleasant room from a widow:

It had a divan bed on which I was lying, two comfortable armchairs, a small dining table with two chairs, a colour TV set and by the big picture window a small desk and chair. Facing me was a wall to wall bookcase, crammed with books. There were two wool rugs, one by the divan, the other under the desk. The flooring was polished wood blocks. There was a small, vine covered veranda that looked out onto the beach and the sea. For thirty bucks a week, the room was a steal.

You’d think Devery would be happy–a job, a good wage, and a nice place to live, but then, since this is a noir novel…..

do me a favourChase builds this fast paced, page turner with a silky smooth, yet relentless narrative. We’re inside Devery’s head, but through the author’s skill, we’re still outsiders imagining that Devery is happy and grateful for his lucky break. We’re like the suckers who help Devery, imagining that now he’ll recuperate his life and begin working hard. Think again.

My ambition was like the spots of  a leopard. Once you are landed with my kind of ambition, you were stuck with it. My ambition for big money burned inside me with the intensity of a blow-torch flame. It nagged me like a raging toothache. During those five grim years in jail I had spent hours thinking and scheming about how to get my hands on big money. […] Sooner or later, I was going to be rich. I was going to have a fine house, a Caddy, a yacht and all the other trimmings that big money buys. I was going to have all that.

Nudged by “fate’s elbow,” Devery meets the owner of a real estate company, alcoholic, overweight, bombastic Frank Marshall. Marshall has “expectations” and when his aunt finally dies, Marshall will be a millionaire. This is the big score that Devery’s been looking for.

During my stay in jail, I had shared a cell with a slick con man who liked to boast about his past swindles. He had had, according to him, a spectacular career until he had become too greedy.

“For years, buster,” he said to me, “I have traded on other people’s greed and then, goddamn it, if I didn’t get greedy myself and look where it’s landed me … ten years in a cell!”

He had expanded on the subject of greed.

“If a guy has two dollars, he will want four. If he has five thousand, he’ll want ten. This is human nature. I knew a guy who was worth five million and he nearly bust a gut turning it into seven. The human race is never satisfied. The more they have, the more they want, and if you show them how to make a fast buck without working for it, they’ll be all over you.”

Of course, you can read that quote one of two ways: Devery is thinking that he can con Marshall out of his money, but the reader picks up another vibe–Devery has just landed on his feet through a stroke of good fortune. Why risk a steady job with prospects by committing another crime? Just who is greedy here Devery’s mark, Marshall or Devery himself?

My sights were set much higher than to spend the rest of my days in a one-horse town like Wicksteed. I wanted to get into the big league where the real money was.

Hadley plays this dual possibility of exactly which character is being played by his greed, with Devery thinking he’s in the driver’s seat while we know Devery is making a huge mistake. Gradually we see exactly what sort of man Devery is and how he’s able to reflect back the image people want to see. He even picks up the town habit of labelling everything “nice.” When Devery insinuates himself into Marshall’s life, he thinks he can count on Marshall’s greed, but Devery, unknowingly has changed lanes and is headed towards his inescapable fate.

Naturally we have to have a women in the tale, so say hello to Marshall’s much younger, stone-faced, reclusive wife, Beth:

The woman who stood in the doorway gave me a jolt of surprise. Around thirty-three, she was almost as tall as myself and she was thin: too thin for my liking. I prefer women with bumps and curves. Her features were good: a long, thin nose, a big mouth and a well sculptured jaw line, Her eyes gave her unusual face its life: black glittering eyes, steady and coldly impersonal. This wasn’t a woman with whom you took liberties: strictly no fanny patting.

This is my fourth James Hadley Chase novel to date.  Chase, whose real name was René Brabazon Raymond, was British and wrote a large number of books (80-90 depending on which website you read). He wrote his first novel, No Orchids for Miss Blandish after reading James Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice, and realising the market demand for gangster stories, had a remarkable career writing crime novels. Chase’s books are mostly set in America even though he only visited a couple of times.

One of the arguments that Chase wasn’t as successful in America is that he didn’t get many of the details right (and Devery’s $200 a week wage seems high for the times), and that’s certainly apparent in There’s a Hippie on the Highway–a book I couldn’t resist thanks to its title. Unfortunately, Hadley’s view of hippies was more Mansonesque than I think the average person would imagine hippies to be, so the novel was, for me, a curiosity more than anything else. A Coffin from Hong Kong was a standard PI novel for anyone interested.

Translated into French as Fais-moi plaisir… crève ! 

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River Girl: Charles Williams (1951)

“It’s men, I tell you. They never should let ’em out alone.”

River Girl is the third novel I’ve read by American crime author Charles Williams, and it’s the best of the three. I didn’t think I’d find one that topped Hell Hath No Fury so when I tell you that River Girl, published in 1951, soars to the number one spot for Charles Williams novels read so far, then that should give you an idea of just how good this tidy, desperate, dark noir novel is. Told initially in a laid-back style by the amoral narrator, Deputy Jack Marshall, the story’s pace picks up, increasing its tone of claustrophobic desperation as Jack’s life spins out of control.

river girlThe story is set in a small, corrupt town run by Sheriff Buford, a confident ladies’ man  who holds the political and economic reins on the region. This means that nothing much happens there without Buford knowing, approving, and having a piece of the pie. The problem is that Buford doesn’t like to get those lily-whites dirty–that’s where his deputy, Jack Marshall, our narrator, comes in. Jack Marshall, the son of a deceased judge, is useful to Buford, and most of his usefulness comes from the fact that while Jack is intelligent, he doesn’t rock the boat. He takes the path of “least resistance,” so he doesn’t challenge Buford’s authority or corruption, but neither is he particularly motivated by money. He skims along on the surface of his life, not wanting to examine anything too closely, and as a result, he complies with Buford’s demands, accepting the back door deals, the bribes and the sly winks as people look the other way–even if he doesn’t particularly like it. On a personal level, Jack’s marriage to Louise is strained, full of bitter recriminations and arguments. If Jack looked at his life closely, he’d wonder how the hell he got to this point, so rather than struggle against the position he finds himself in, he goes along with all the moral compromises, giving in at every turn to Louise’s demands and Buford’s iron-fisted control of the town.

The small town corruption exists on every level, and you can draw a direct line of complicity from the whorehouse, to the bank, and then to the sheriff’s office. Buford has that air of congenial bonhomie that masks the cunning, vicious mind of a slick predator. Jack may be amoral but Buford is evil. With a little more ambition, and a little more hunger for money, perhaps Jack could be Buford. Here’s Jack weighing up his boss:

He took out a cigar and lit it, then removed it from his mouth and looked at it in the manner of a man who loves good cigars. He’s an odd one, I thought, a queer mixture, and not somebody I’d want to tangle with unless I had to. That nineteenth century courtliness fronted for a lot of toughness you could see sometimes looking out at you from behind noncommittal eyes.

Even though Sheriff Buford is as corrupt as hell, he’s repeatedly re-elected by the constituents who know that he’s rotten to the core. This is due partly to the fact that the women love him, and the men want to be like him. It’s also due to the fact that everyone who counts–except the local preacher, Soames, likes the way Buford runs things. The big dilemma presented almost immediately is that Soames is preaching against some of the town’s shadier establishments, and with a grand jury investigation on the horizon, Buford wants everyone to keep a low profile until the trouble blows over. Buford, who gets a generous kickback from the local whorehouse run by tart-mouthed madam, Abbie Bell, isn’t too happy then when he gets a call that some drunk customer at the whorehouse has gone postal. This incident illustrates how Jack is the fix-it/clean up guy for Buford’s seedier deals. Since the bank president owns the building in which the whorehouse operates, it’s ostensibly a “hotel,” with a high turn over of girls and customers. Abbie believes that if “they’re old enough to give it away, they’re old enough to sell” themselves–no one asks questions about underage customers or teen prostitutes, and that way there are no uncomfortable answers. It’s a system that works for everyone but is never openly acknowledged. Here’s Abbie’s response to Jack when he tells her that ‘her girls’ need  to keep a low profile until the investigation is over:

“I know, I know. I’ve heard enough about it. Look, Jack, I try to keep those lousy high-school punks out of here, but Jesus, I can’t watch the door every minute. I don’t want ’em anymore than Buford does. I’d rather have a skin rash. They smell of a cork and they’re drunk, like that dumb bunny. And they never have a crying dollar on ’em–all they want to do is to feel  up al the girls and then go out chasing their lousy jail bait.”

The book opens on a day that is a turning point for Jack. We see him at home with Louise, his grasping, naggy, perpetually unsatisfied wife whose ambitions far exceed her husband’s salary. She’s one of those women who don’t mind that their husbands are mixed up in shady deals, but they do mind that there’s not more money in it for them to blow. Longing to be upper-middle-class with all the trappings of the fur-clad bourgeoisie wives, Louise isn’t fussy where the money comes from, just as long as it gushes her way. Louise thinks she’s better than the prostitutes that work in the local whorehouse, but she has no problem spending the money these women earned the hard way. After plunging Jack into debt with the purchase of a new car, Louise wants to hang out at the beach with her more affluent friends and she needs money. She harangues Jack about collecting money from the whorehouse, but then bitches at the prospect of having to live on his salary alone. Nagging, complaining and bitching until she wears him down, Jack tosses Louise the money he collected from Abbie Bell just to shut his wife up:

“Here,” I said, tossing it. “There’s a hundred and twenty-five in there.” It landed on the bed next to her naked midriff. Well, it’s gone full circle, I thought. That’s where it came from–a girl on a bed.

Disgusted with his job, and frustrated with his wife’s endless demands, Jack goes fishing, travelling deeper into swamp country than he usually goes, and here he meets Doris a mysterious woman who’s living in a primitive hut and who appears to be in hiding….

Caught between the two powerful personalities of his wife Louise and Buford, Jack Marshall is already ensnared in a nasty situation when the book begins, and he seeks to dis-entangle himself but only becomes increasingly caught in a web of intrigue. As a noir anti-hero, motivated by desire for a woman, he tries to escape to a  better life, and while he tries to use fate to his advantage, instead fate takes him for a hellish ride, tricking him at every crossroads into thinking that he has choices… that he has a chance when we know he does not.

While River Girl is a fantastic, tense, atmospheric story, the book is also packed full of fully-fleshed characters and dialogue that sounds so real, you hear the characters speaking. Naturally, and you know this is coming, there’s a femme fatale in these pages, but it’s not who you thought it would be–nonetheless, she’s here, a duplicitous, destructive, expensive beauty with a heady need for excitement and thrills. There’s the sense that we know exactly how this town works with its dirty deals and all the so-called ‘nice’ people looking the other way until things get so out-of-control that someone has to be reeled in and thrown out of town. There’s a moment when Jack has to deal with an underage prostitute, and for a moment, he is disgusted with himself. Yet the novel allows for no sentimentality as we read just how Jack manipulates this teenage girl and facilitates her on her desperate road to corruption and self-destruction. One of the story’s sad ironies is that Jack hates his life but lacks the motivation to do anything about it, and then when he acquires the motivation, his method of reinvention is flawed and tarred by the life he’s led. It’s too late for Jack; he just doesn’t know it yet. Jack’s struggle becomes his excruciating battle against fate–a fight that he can’t win and one that will take him full circle as he descends into “some frightening and deadly spiral”

I was conscious of the horrible sensation that I wasn’t just walking in circles in space and time, but that I was actually swinging around the steep black sides of some enormous whirlpool and sliding always towards the center.

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