Tag Archives: PI

The Moving Target: Ross Macdonald (Lew Archer 1:1949)

“You can’t blame money for what it does to people, the evil is in people and money is the peg they hang it on.”

Southern California millionaire, Ralph Sampson may be loaded, but he’s hanging out with all the wrong people. PI Lew Archer is hired by Sampson’s disaffected, much younger second wife to find her husband. Not that Mrs. Sampson really cares what Ralph is doing or who he’s with, just as long as he’s not giving away any more money. In spite of a crippling injury, Mrs. Sampson expects to outlive her husband and intends to inherit the whole enchilada.

There was a wheelchair standing beside her but she didn’t look like an invalid. She was very lean and brown, tanned so dark, her flesh seemed hard. Her hair was bleached, curled tightly on her narrow head like blobs of whipped cream. Her age was as hard to tell as a figure carved from mahogany.

According to Mrs. Sampson, her errant husband is “not missing exactly, just gone off by himself.” She wants to know where Ralph is and who he’s with. On the eccentric side, Ralph has gone off on a bender before. Ralph’s sexually precocious daughter, Miranda, is very concerned about her father, but she’s still got time to dangle herself in front of Ralph’s hunky pilot, Alan. Meanwhile, Ralph’s lawyer and family friend Albert Graves is desperately in love with Miranda. It would be a somewhat incongruous match due to their tremendous age gap, and Albert knows he’s outgunned by Alan.

Archer takes the case, noting that Ralph may not even be ‘missing’ or in danger. It’s thought that Ralph may be in Los Angeles, and according to Albert Graves, Los Angeles “isn’t safe for an elderly lush.” Graves notes that Mrs. Sampson has “dominant motives like greed and vanity,” but he’s there more to give Miranda his support and keep an eye on his rival, Alan. The search takes Archer to Los Angeles, seedy clubs, and a religious retreat run by a corrupt guru. Mingling with Hollywood has-beens, Archer finds himself getting an aging actress drunk. He despises himself for it; it’s a dirty job, but someone’s got to do it. Ross Macdonald is an incredibly descriptive writer, a master of inventive similes, and in this novel, he creates the tawdry, cheap glamour of the low side of Hollywood. Archer is a man we want to hang out with. Who could refuse to ride shotgun?

“I used to think the world was divided into good people and bad people, that you could pin responsibility for evil on certain, definite people and punish the guilty. I’m still going through the motions. And talking too much.

Don’t stop.”

“I’m fouled up, why should I foul you up?”

“I am already. And I don’t understand what you said.

“I’ll take it from the beginning. When I went into police work in 1935, I believed that evil was a quality some people were born with, like a harelip. A cop’s job was to find those people and put them away. But evil isn’t so simple. Everybody has it in him and whether it comes out in his actions depends on a number of things: environment, opportunity, economic pressure, a piece of bad luck, a wrong friend. The trouble is a cop has to go on judging people by rule of thumb and acting on the judgment.”

“Do you judge people?”

“Everybody I meet. The graduates of the police schools make a big thing of scientific detection, and that has its place, but most of my work is watching people and judging them.”

“And you find evil in everybody?”

“Just about. Either I’m getting sharper or people are getting worse. And that could be. War and inflation always raise a crop of stinkers, and a lot of them have settled in California.”

That quote–the motives behind evil actions–is certainly true here. Archer is a marvelous creation, a terrific narrator: world weary and sardonic, the nature of his cases takes into the very heart of toxic, twisted family relationships. He’s seen a lot, and in spite of this, he maintains his humanity–possibly because he maintains his independence. He seems to be self-composed and yet Miranda sniffs, there’s a edge of self-destruction there under the surface, and this emerges as they talk about driving at high speeds.

“Do you drive fast?”

“I’ve done 105 on this road in the caddie.”

The rules of the game we were playing weren’t clear yet. But I felt outplayed. “And what’s your reason.”

I do it when I’m bored pretend to myself that I’m going to meet something. Something utterly new. Something naked and bright. A moving target in the road.”


Filed under Fiction, Macdonald Ross, posts

Solomon’s Vineyard: Jonathan Latimer (1941)

“I began to think about how it would be to live in Mexico. I had nearly four grand. That would last for a while. The trouble was, they didn’t have many redheads in Mexico.”

solomon's vineyardAuthor and screenwriter Jonathan Latimer’s 1941 novel Solomon’s Vineyard comes with more than a little notoriety, but prior to perhaps his most infamous novel, Latimer (1906-1983) wrote 5 Bill Crane mysteries in the 30s:

Murder in the Madhouse (1935)

Headed For a Hearse (1935)

The Lady in the Morgue (1936)

The Dead Don’t Care (1938)

Red Gardenias (1939)

Solomon’s Vineyard was published in England in 1941, but it didn’t appear in America until 1950 in an expurgated version and under a different title, The Fifth Grave. Therefore, if you, dear reader, wish to seek out this amazing piece of vintage nastiness, complete with a religious cult, S&M, a little necrophilia, a whorehouse and small-town corruption, make sure you seek out Solomon’s Vineyard as it was originally written. And here’s how it begins:

From the way her buttocks looked under the black silk dress, I knew she’d be good in bed. The silk was tight and under it the muscles worked slow and easy. I saw weight there, and control, and brother, those are the things I like in a woman. I put down my bags and walked after her along the station platform.

She walked towards the waiting room. She had gold-blonde hair, and curves, and breasts the size of Cuban pineapples. Every now and then, walking, she’d swing a hip until it looked like it was going out of joint and then she’d throw it back in place with a snap, making the buttocks quiver under this dress that was like black skin. I guess she knew I was following her.

The libidinous narrator is private detective Karl Craven who’s hired to rescue (or kidnap) an “emotionally unbalanced” heiress who’s living in a religious cult living at Solomon’s Vineyard on the outskirts of the small town of Paulton.  The cult leader, a “prophet” who called himself Solomon  died 5 years previously, and his body is kept in state inside a temple while his crazed followers wait for his return. Craven arrives in Paulton to join his womanizing partner who’s already been there for a few weeks on a re-con mission. Checking into one of the town’s hotels, Craven has several indications that this town is rotten; there’s debris blowing in the street, and an unshaven cop watches disinterestedly as a car flies through a red light. Pretending to be a hardware salesman, Craven noses around town trying to find a way to get close to the heiress, and earn the big cheque (he’s already spending) paid for her safe return. Craven is ready to admit that “religious cults are the hardest nuts to crack.”

There’s a wry sense of humour in the story emanating from Craven’s narration. Part of the tongue-in-cheek humour comes from Craven’s style of action and his habits, and the fact that he refuses to take anything too seriously. But there’s also a shade of humour to be found in how Craven views himself vs how he is viewed by others.

I got out of my clothes and put my revolver in a bureau drawer. On my way to the shower I caught sight of myself in the mirror on the back of the bathroom door and stopped to look at my belly. The knife wound was healing fine. There would be a scar, but what the hell! What’s a scar on the belly? I saw I was getting bigger. Every time I looked at myself naked I saw that. It wasn’t all fat; the flesh seemed hard enough but it still kept coming.

But since he’s called “fatso” in the story, we can imagine that Craven is more heft than brawn. Early in the story, Craven admits that there are “only three things” he likes in the “world; food, fighting  and… women.” He ogles soft porn mags, reads Black Mask, wonders why J. Edgar Hoover isn’t on to the killer methods of a fictional G-Man, craves rare meat, is excited by the sight of blood, knocks back bottles of bourbon, and while he prefers blondes, he doesn’t hesitate at a redhead if she has curves in the right places. He consumes ridiculously huge breakfasts consisting of large amounts of booze & meat (6 double lamb chops is one example), chases a nightclub singer named Ginger until he pisses off her boyfriend, hood Pug Banta, and has several fights throughout the course of the story–including a shoot-out in a Turkish bath. It doesn’t take Craven long before he’s mixed up in the town’s politics, and he learns how the cult, run by “the Princess,” a blonde whose perfume makes him think of “black lace underwear” gets its money: “Liquor, and dope and immorality.”

Solomon's Vineyard 2Craven is a reprobate and a heel to use the language of the times. Speaking of the times, the story reflects gender and race attitudes of the period, so women are dames, and the staff at several of the hotels and houses are black but called “negro” and employed in demeaning roles as bellboys and doormen. Craven establishes a relationship with one such character, and sends him out frequently on various vice errands. While Craven is morally unscrupulous, he sticks it to the bad guys, but there are one or two rusty principles buried deep down. His initial plan was to work undercover, but since he’s too obviously interested in the heiress, he decides to stir up action instead. He blunders into the lives of the town’s key players, whipping up a shit storm in his wake and using his cynical knowledge of human nature to pit various people against each other. While some of the consequences of Craven’s actions are expected and desired, some of his plans cause collateral damage, but Craven doesn’t exactly waste time worrying about consequences; he understands that people are cast into roles in life and act accordingly. He gets the job done, doesn’t worry too much about appearances of the finer points of ethical behaviour, and has definite ideas about women, including the belief that if you spend something on a dame, you get something in return.  He’s also rather curious about Solomon’s Vineyard due to the orgies they hold and their secret ceremonies which involve sex.

Craven offers his philosophy about life at several points, and while he’s a tough guy, he’s also partly bon vivant, and time after time he lists the meals he eats–whole peach pies & three hamburgers, four pound steaks and raw eggs. This is a man, a former football player gone to seed, of large appetites: booze, food and women. Tagged a hard-boiled crime novel,  Solomon’s Vineyard, with its humorous touches, leans towards pulp and that is helped, of course, by the whole religious cult scenario. But what’s so marvellous here is Craven’s narration.

I didn’t belong to the school of thinkers who held all whores had hearts of gold and would give you their last two bucks to keep some guy from starving. All the whores I ever knew, and brother, I knew plenty, would get you drunk and jack-roll you if you gave them half a chance.

The book’s last line which nails Craven’s personality made the book. I won’t write it here, but for fans of the genre, do yourself a favour and check out this detective novel. The Black Mask edition of this title is the unexpurgated version.


Filed under Fiction, Latimer Jonathan

More Beer by Jakob Arjouni

“The most revealing thing about a murder is its motive. And the most revealing thing about a motive is the victim. It’s as simple as that.”

I have read a number of books that indicate a surprising lack of basic knowledge when it comes to writing about so-called eco-terrorists. These ‘thrillers’ include fictional characters who are activists engaged in acts of sabotage against, let’s say, laboratories that conduct experiments on animal subjects, urban sprawl, or slaughter houses. The authors of such books frequently choose to ignore the basic tenet of Ecotage and the direct action performed by environmental groups such as ALF and ELF–that is destruction to property and not to human life. So with those reading experiences in mind, it was simply refreshing to come across More Beer, a German crime novel written by Jakob Arjouni.

More Beer is the tale of a German/Turk PI named Kemal Kayankaya who’s roped into a very messy case. This is an ecotage case in which four young activists from the Ecological Front raided a chemical plant and blew up a waste pipe. Chemicals from the Bollig plant had been discharged into a nearby lake for some time, and several children in the area “developed strange skin problems” as a result. In spite of the fact that the Bollig plant could be forced to pay damages to the families of these children, no substantial change had been made to the chemical plant procedures. It is business as usual for the Bollig plant, and the ecological activists decided to raid the plant and blow up the waste pipe “to get the debate going again.” But something went wrong, and the owner of the plant, Friedrich Bollig was shot dead with “four bullets in his chest and head.”

According to eyewitnesses at the scene, there were five men running around that night, but only four were arrested. The men, who refuse to talk to the police and refuse to identify the fifth man, admit blowing up the pipe but deny that they had anything to do with Bollig’s death. According to their lawyer, Anastas, without the identity of the fifth man he finds it impossible to “mount a successful defense.” Anastas believes his clients are innocent of murder and admits that “these four are as far removed from killer commandos as a delegation of allotment holders would be.” 

In spite of some skepticism Kayankaya agrees to take the case. On the one hand, he finds it bizarre that ec0-saboteurs would end up killing someone, but then to say that these 4 men who were on site to blow up a waste pipe just happened to be there when Fredrich Bollig was murdered by someone else seems to be stretching any notion of coincidence. But there are some things that bother Kayankaya about the case. How did the police catch the saboteurs so quickly? Some eyewitnesses say that they heard shots prior to the explosion, but then supposedly Bollig went to investigate the explosion and was then shot. Kayankaya knows that he must investigate the conflicting eyewitness statements and establish the exact sequence of events and that he must also ascertain who would benefit from the death of Bollig.

While some people at the Bollig plant are very cooperative, others are hostile. As the investigation deepens, it also becomes increasingly dangerous for Kayankaya–especially since as a Turk he’s already subject to a large amount of prejudice from witnesses and from the police investigating the case.

More Beer includes some marvellous characterisations which raised the book above the norm for crime fiction. Here’s Hertha, the owner of Hertha’s Corner, a seedy 24-hour bar:

The proprietress pushed through the brown bead curtain, took my cup away and brought it back with a refill. Her ample bosom was swathed in a ball gown from which her arms, neck, and head protruded like sausages. Her rear was adorned with a purple satin bow, her wrists with fake gold bracelets. Her hair had been dipped in liquid silver. Hertha was the owner of Hertha’s Corner–open twenty-four hours. The place was large, dark, and empty. The dusty bottles behind the bar were lit up by fluorescence. Raindrops rattled against the dirty windowpanes. In one corner stood the table reserved for regulars, with its wrought-iron emblem, a wild sow waving a beer stein. Hertha was rinsing glasses. A fly landed on my mutilated sandwich. I lit a cigarette and blew smoke rings around the fly.

Kayankaya discovers more than one skeleton in the Bollig family closet, and it seems as though Bollig’s murder has managed to sway public opinion favorably towards the chemical waste company responsible for damaging the local children.  Kayankaya keeps digging and his investigation brings him to the attention of the sadistic Detective Superintendent Kessler–a man whose slight physical presence belies his nasty nature.

More Beer, part of a series of Kayankaya mysteries, is written with a light touch of humour with PI Kayankaya mainly amused by the bizarre characters he meets during the course of his investigation. These colourful locals include the heavily-tanned, merry widow Barbara Bollig,  and Nina Scheigel, the vodka-guzzling wife of the night watchman. Everyone, it seems, has something to hide. 

Translated by Anselm Hollo

Review copy courtesy of Melville House Publishing via netgalley.


Filed under Arjouni Jakob, Fiction

Kiss Her Goodbye by Mickey Spillane and Max Allan Collins

When you went to Florida, you took your fishing rod. For Manhattan, a rod of a different kind was called for.”

American crime author, Mickey Spillane created his iconic fictional flawed hero, Mike Hammer decades ago, and it’s nothing short of fantastic to see Hammer back, badder than ever, for this 2011 release. Over the years, Spillane produced a series of books featuring Hammer and his faithful sidekick, his long-term loyal secretary and lover, Velda. Many of these books made it to film (I, The Jury, My Gun is Quick, Kiss Me Deadly, The Girl Hunters just to name a few). When Spillane died in 2006, it seemed as though Hammer would die with him, but Spillane left several unfinished manuscripts behind, and in the week before his death he told his wife:

“When I’m gone, there’s going to be a treasure hunt around here. Take everything you find and give it to Max–he’ll know what to do with it.”

The ‘Max’ referred to by Spillane is another giant of American crime fiction, Max Allan Collins. Collins is the creator of a dazzling number of crime series featuring some marvellous characters including Eliot Ness, Dick Tracy, and my personal favourite, Quarry. If none of these sound familiar to you, try the film Road to Perdition based on the author’s book. In my opinion, Collins is Spillane’s natural successor in the world of American crime writing. Clearly Spillane saw Collins in that light, and trusted his abilities enough to leave him the incredible legacy of a bunch of unfinished manuscripts–manuscripts other writers (and many publishers) would kill to get their hands on. Max Allan Collins, by the way, was a long-term fan of Spillane’s and the two men later became friends.

This brings me back to Kiss Her Goodbye–the latest of Spillane’s manuscripts to make publication through Max’s creativity and understanding of just what Spillane was all about. Kiss Her Goodbye follows Dead Street, The Goliath Bone (Spillane was working on this novel right before his death), and The Big Bang–all Spillane/Collins collaborations. Hard Case Crime will publish The Consummata later this year (and you bet I’ll be reading it), and for lucky fans there may be more to come.

Spillane’s Kiss Her Goodbye came to Max as “plot, character notes, as well as a shorter false start.” Max eventually “combined, shaped, and expanded” two “partial manuscripts” into Kiss Her Goodbye. The result is a kick-ass, violent, Hammer novel which will make one of my top reads of 2011.

Kiss her Goodbye finds Hammer aging, recuperating, and very possibly mellowing in the Florida sunshine. It’s been about a year since the mob shoot-out that left Hammer badly wounded, but at least he was better off than his enemy, psychotic gangster, Sal Bonetti. Initially not expected to survive, Hammer’s recuperation has been long and painful, and even now he’s not what he once was.  

Hammer receives a phone call from New York homicide cop, Captain Bill Chambers that Hammer’s old mentor, retired cop Bill Doolan is dead. The official version is that Doolan, suffering from terminal cancer, has committed suicide, but Hammer doesn’t swallow that line. He flies to New York and begins digging into the circumstances of Doolan’s death. While it appears to be a clear-cut case of suicide, Hammer sniffs a few details that don’t add up. And then there’s every indication that Doolan was working on something just before he died….

When Hammer first arrives back in New York, he’s reluctant to be there, reluctant to be back in his old killing grounds and as far as New York’s concerned, he’s ready to “kiss her goodbye.” In spite of the fact that he’s recognised everywhere he goes, and that he’s such a New York fixture that Cohen’s Deli even names a sandwich after him (The Mike Hammer mile-high sandwich), Hammer isn’t happy to be back:

Now it was the city’s turn to pass in review and it did a lousy job. Nothing had changed. No sudden sense of deja vu–the smells were the same, the noise still grating, the people out there looking and waiting but never seeing anything at all. If they did, they sure as hell didn’t let anyone know about it.

While New York is essentially the same, Hammer isn’t. He suffers from aches and pains and still has a piece of a bullet lodged in his buttocks. Initially, he isn’t interested in returning to the world of New York crime: 

I’m not in it any more. I haven’t the slightest faintest fucking desire to get wrapped up in that bundle of bullshit again. I’ve done it, it’s past me. I’m retired.

For an example of the genre, it really doesn’t get any better than Kiss Her Goodbye. This explosive PI crime novel is firmly rooted in pulp, and while the story begins with a damaged Hammer, once he’s back in New York where he belongs, he gradually moves from alienation to thinking that  “I was getting the feeling that I was back in my own ballpark again.” He morphs from sleepy, invalided semi-retirement, aches and pains and pill-popping to hair-trigger, violent action. He’s a virtual killing machine.

Since this is a Hammer novel, there are some beautiful babes and also, believe it or not, some humour, Hammer style. As Pat tells Hammer:

As I recall, killing people and banging dames is where you excel, and sometimes there’s a blurring between the lines.

The women in Hammer’s life are a study in contrasts: there’s Chrome, a sultry South American singer who has a permanent gig at Club 52–the go-to-destination for coke and roman-style orgies, and there’s also the new assistant DA, shapely Angela Marshall:

She looked like a schoolteacher you were really afraid of and also wanted to jump.

While power-suited Angela sees Hammer as some sort of male anachronism, there’s a chemistry between the two:

To you,” I said, “I’m an exercise. A far-out, way-out exercise to test your inherent abilities and your well-honed skills. Until now, everything has gone your way, because you have that glossiness beautiful girls get on their way to being women–that smooth surface that makes guys slide right off them. But someplace, way back, somebody smart warned you to watch out for a guy who had sandpaper on his hands, and who wouldn’t slide off at all. You never thought you’d need that kind of guy, but baby, you do now.”

Hammer isn’t exactly what you’d call gallant with the women in his life. He’s too cynical and grounded in jaded realism for roses and chocolates:

Breakfast with a real doll can be damn exciting. They’re awake, showered, and manicured, and all the weapons are pointed right at whatever chump is dumb enough to be sitting across from them. To such dolls, the guy on the other end of the fork is the big, ripe, plum ready for the plucking, because that world of economic dominance he dwells in, whatever male aggression he possesses, are overshadowed by the two most basic hungers.

And finally, lest I give the wrong impression that the novel floats on action alone, there are some beautiful atmospheric passages:

Down on the street, the rain had let up. But a low rumble of thunder echoed across the city. There was an occasional dull glaze of cloud-hidden lightning in the south, and when the wind gusted past, I could smell more rain coming–the kind that was held above the buildings until it was soaked with debris and dust, and when it came down, it wouldn’t be a cleansing rain at all.

Hammer, back in New York, where he belongs…

My copy of Kiss Her Goodbye came courtesy of the publisher via netgalley


Filed under Collins, Max Allan, Fiction, Spillane Mickey

Wild Wives by Charles Willeford

“The rain hit hard at my window. It slowed down to a whisper, then hit hard again. All afternoon the rain had been doing this while I sat behind my desk with my feet up, doing nothing. I looked around at the ratty little office and wondered vaguely what time it was.

It wasn’t much of an office. The four walls were painted a sickly lime-green, and the only bright spot in the room was the famous Marilyn Monroe calendar with its flame-red background. Two ladder-backed straight chairs, a two-drawer file cabinet, a cheap combination typing-and-writing desk and a swivel chair completed the furnishings. The rugless floor was laid with brown and yellow linoleum blocks.”

In Wild Wives, author Charles Willeford presents us with yet another perverse protagonist. While in this novella, private detective Jake Blake may appear to be a fairly typical private detective noir character, as the story plays out, it becomes increasingly obvious that Blake is almost as strange as The Woman Chaser‘s protagonist, Richard Hudson. It’s amazing that Willeford wrote and published this in 1959.

When the story begins, Jake Blake is sitting in his dingy office located in the “mezzanine of the King Edward Hotel” in San Francisco listening to the rain outside. While he acknowledges that this is a terrible location for the office of a private detective, he admits that he “hung onto it” because he also lives in the hotel and because it was “cheap.” There is no work, and Blake is already in hot water with the hotel management over his bills, but Blake isn’t particularly perturbed. That afternoon, two women come into the office separately, and his life is never the same.

His first visitor is an annoying, precocious teenager who insists that she has the talent and wit to become Blake’s undercover operative, and while Blake momentarily contemplates giving the girl a spanking, he opts instead to send her on a wild goose chase. The second visitor is Florence Weintraub, a young woman with eyes like “freshly washed blackberries” who hires Blake to shake off two burly henchmen she claims are ordered to follow her by her overly protective father. As it turns out, Florence is lying. Her husband, the much older, and very wealthy Mr. Weintraub, employs the men to follow his rather wild wife around San Francisco. “She wasn’t the type who is hard-to-get; she was anxious-to-get.”

There are many fascinating aspects to this noir novel. The private detective who is hoodwinked by a beautiful woman is a popular archetype in noir fiction, but they usually have some principles to cling to when the web of deceit, corruption and intrigue descends. This is not the case with Willeford’s protagonist. From the start, it’s obvious that Jake Blake is perverse and amoral. There’s no gutter nobility here–forget Humphrey Bogart’s Philip Marlowe–Blake is as self-serving and opportunistic as they come. Blake descends into a tawdry affair with Florence that begins with a steamy encounter in the Knockout Club and continues through a wild ride to Las Vegas.

As Blake and Florence team up out of sheer necessity, it becomes clear that Florence is deranged and psychotic. But what about Blake? Is he any better? As the story unfolds, hints begin to appear that give shape to Blake’s perverse nature. Amoral, cold, and perverse, he’s more than a match for femme fatale Florence.

This is not as developed a story as The Woman Chaser. Some plot elements are sketchy (the art dealer, for example). But for those who want something a little different, this is an antidote for all those novels with gooey happy endings.

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Filed under Fiction, Willeford, Charles