Tag Archives: San Francisco

The Last Days of Il Duce: Domenic Stansberry

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review copy/own a copy

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Chance by Kem Nunn

The essential feature of a shared psychotic disorder (folie à deux) is a delusion that develops in an otherwise healthy individual who is involved in a close relationship with another person (sometimes termed the “inducer” or “the primary case”) who already has a psychotic disorder with prominent delusions and who, in general, is the dominant in the relationship and is thus able, over time to gradually impose the delusional system on the more passive and initially healthy individual.”

Regular readers of this blog know that I have an interest in fiction involving therapists–add that to noir and you’ve immediately got my attention, so when I read about Kem Nunn’s new book, Chance, I thought I’d probably like it. I was wrong, I didn’t like it; I loved it.

chanceEldon Chance is a middle-aged San-Francisco based forensic neuropsychiatrist, whose life, until just recently was going extremely well. Married for over 20 years to “aspiring photographer,” Diane, and the father of a teenage daughter, Nicole, his life seemed enviable. But Diane’s affair with “a dyslexic personal trainer ten years her junior,” has led to divorce proceedings. Their pricey home is up for sale, Nicole will no longer be able to attend her expensive private school, and Chance has moved into a tiny apartment, so tiny, it can’t house his expensive antique French furniture set which looks ridiculous jammed into its new surroundings. Things aren’t quite bad enough apparently … Chance receives a notice from the IRS that he owes over 200,000 in back taxes and fines.

Chance considers selling his fancy French furniture to a nearby antique shop he frequents. Problem is that because it lacks the brass metalwork, it’s not considered complete and he can only get 50-60 thousand for it. If the furniture had its original metalwork, however, the set would fetch around twice that according to antique shop owner Carl. Carl, however, employs a giant of man, an incredible craftsman named D (whose bald head sports a huge tattoo of a black widow spider), and according to Carl, D can replace the metalwork to Chance’s furniture so cleverly that no one will be able to tell the difference. With the metalwork intact, the furniture can be sold for top dollar.

Normally a very cautious person, Chance, pressured by necessity and now unmoored from the supports of his previously structured life, begins to make a series of bad decisions–one of those decisions being, of course, to sell the furniture with the newly attached metalwork crafted by D, and while that is fraudulent, Chance’s mistakes go further than that. We know he’s going to head for disaster from the way he thinks about the female patients who come his way. Bear in mind that he’s not dealing with mentally healthy women when he finds himself noting their attractiveness, their sexuality and possible availability. One of his patients is a substitute teacher named Jaclyn Blackstone who appears to suffer from a dissociative identity disorder. While Jaclyn is estranged from her violent, jealous husband, Oakland homicide detective, Raymond Blackstone, she claims that a second personality, “Jackie Black,” engages in rough sex with Blackstone. Dr. Chance finds himself attracted to this patient, but which one tweaks his interest: Jaclyn or Jackie?

Chance can dissect human psychological problems in a few sentences and produce neatly written reports that will appear as evidence in court cases, but as it turns out, he sucks at predicting human behaviour or avoiding disasters in his personal life. Involvement with the elusive Jaclyn combined with the threat of physical danger sends Chance to D, a disciple of Nietzsche, initially for advice, and then for assistance as Chance becomes increasingly drawn into the dark secrets of Jaclyn’s world. Unlike Chance, D doesn’t live inside textbooks and knows that sometimes you have to be prepared to back up your position with violence.  As D tells Chance, “there are no victims just volunteers.” D, who has a thing for exotic weaponry, sees where Chance is heading and warns him:

“Ever heard of The Frozen Lake?”

“I’m not sure what you mean.”

“Then you haven’t heard of it. It’s the thing you want so badly you’ll go to the center of a frozen lake to reach it.”

“Where the ice is the thinnest.”

“But you won’t think about that. Everyone else will, just not you.”

With D as a guide to the netherworld of violent encounters, physical confrontation and surveillance, Chance follows Jaclyn down the “rabbit hole,” and one of the big questions is: who can he trust? Is D, with his penchant for violence, a fantasist? And what about Jaclyn? Who is she really? What happened to her last therapist? Is she, as Chance’s fellow therapist suggests, just “finding one man to save her from another?”  Chance deals with various mental issues all day long–but in the past there’s been a nice clinical line between him and the patients he evaluates as part of the report process for insurance companies and court cases. His life has been admirable, clean, ordered and now it’s in chaos, spinning out of control, and D advises Chance to change his role:

People talk about self defense. Self-defense is bullshit. I’m defending, I’m losing. I want the other guy defending while I attack. Doesn’t make any difference how many people I’m fighting. I want them all defending because that means I’m dictating the action. I’m the feeder. As long as I’m the feeder, I win. I don’t care if it’s a dozen. Right now, this cop is the feeder. You’re the receiver. You need to turn that around.

Chance is a fantastic noir novel–that’s not to say that it isn’t flawed because it is. The novel is padded with patient evaluations and a few pieces of diagnostic information, and if you (unlike me) don’t like novels that include therapy, this aspect of the plot may have no appeal. The ending is dragged out, and there’s one knife lesson scene towards the end of the book that seems ridiculous, but frankly I don’t care; I thoroughly enjoyed the book for its psychological complexities, its setting, its characters (D Rocks!) and the entire way that the book exemplifies the noir genre. Kem Nunn is termed an author of “Surf Noir,” but Chance, a very cinematic novel, is set in San Francisco–a city, with unconventionality practically a by-law, that is a natural setting for noir. Chance has spent over twenty years building his life and his reputation, and now his life is in disintegration, falling around him like a house of cards. He’s tempted by money; he’s lured by sex–add corrupt cops, Romanian gangsters and a run down massage parlor in Oakland, and suddenly he’s in so deep there may not be a way out….

Chance imagined himself no stranger to the machinations by which people went about establishing the architecture of their own imprisonment, the citadels from whose basement windows one might on occasion hear their cries.

Review copy.

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Dark Passage: David Goodis (1946)

“You see these lines on my face? They’re anniversary presents.”

As a fan of crime author Duane Swierczynski, I read one of his blog posts arranging a bus trip on Saturday January 7th 2012 to the Philadelphia gravesite of David Goodis (1917-1967). I won’t be joining, but reading about the trip inspired me towards my own David Goodis Tribute (and there will be more later this year). I’m a fan of the noir film Dark Passage which is based on a Goodis novel. It’s an extremely clever film in which we don’t see the protagonist’s face until deep into the story. This “point of view shot” or “subjective camera” shows the action as if the camera is literally the protagonist’s eyes. There’s a good reason for the use of this camera technique, of course, as at one point in Dark Passage the main character has plastic surgery after escaping from San Quentin.

The face in question belongs to Humphrey Bogart; there’s no mistaking that signature voice, and the role of the weary, hunted Vincent Parry is perfect for Bogart. It’s a magnificent film–not only for its teaming of Bogart and Bacall but also for its vivid San Francisco setting. At the time of its release, New York Times film reviewer Bosley Crowther called Dark Passage an “over-stretched fable,” but then again he also called Night and the City ( a film that makes my top noir list) a “turgid, pictorial grotesque.” It’s a fair bet to say that Crowther didn’t care for noir… But back to the book. And here it begins:

It was a tough break. Parry was innocent. On top of that he was a decent sort of guy who never bothered people and wanted to lead a quiet life. But there was too much on the other side and on his side of it there was practically nothing. The jury decided he was guilty. The judge handed him a life sentence and he was taken to San Quentin.

That brilliantly simple passage establishes several things: Vincent Parry, just “a little guy who wasn’t important” repeatedly gets the shaft in life. Note the passive voice in the last line: “he was taken to San Quentin.” That passive voice reinforces the idea that there are bigger forces at work pulling the strings in Vincent’s life. And as we learn more about Vincent, we see that he’s never got a break: orphaned at 15, he stole food and ended up in a reformatory. After being brutalised by a reformatory guard, Vincent’s self-defense ended with more punishment, and that’s how life is for Vincent. He struggles against the injustice meted out by society and ends up being flattened even further. As a result, there’s a more than a streak of defeated fatalism to Vincent’s psyche. Perhaps that’s why he initially meekly accepts a life sentence at San Quentin.

Back to Vincent and San Quentin. What crime is former clerk Vincent convicted for? Well, it’s an ugly one–Vincent’s wife, the trashy Gert is murdered–her skull bashed in with an ashtray. The Parrys’ marriage was noticeably volatile and adulterous, and with a witness who caught Gert’s dying words that Vincent swung the ashtray, Vincent, with no alibi, gets life at San Quentin. At first life there doesn’t seem too bad, and that’s because Vincent doesn’t want much, but then as his existence becomes unbearable, he plans a bold escape….

From this point, fate seems to continue its plan for Vincent, and by the end of the novel, seemingly good luck eventually turns into horrible coincidence. But wait a minute… is there such a thing as coincidence in noir? Or is coincidence just a dark disguise for the tricks of fate?  After escaping from San Quentin, Vincent is picked up by a young attractive, wealthy girl named Irene–a girl who’s taken a special interest in Vincent’s case. Taking considerable personal risks, she whisks him off to her luxury apartment and urges him to hide there until things cool down and she can facilitate his escape from the country. Vincent is suspicious of his good luck:

He said, “If I had a lot of money I could understand it. The way it is now I don’t get it at all. There’s nothing in this for you. Nothing but aggravation and hardship.”

Fate, however, has some cruel games in store, but enough of the plot. What of Goodis’s style?

Goodis has a remarkable way of snaking paragraphs and sentences together. Here’s an example:

Parry was thinking about that as he entered the gates of San Quentin. He hoped he wouldn’t run into any brutal guards. He had an idea that he might be able to extract some ounce of happiness out of prison life. He had always wanted happiness, the simple and ordinary kind. He had never wanted trouble.

He didn’t look as though he could handle trouble. He was five seven and a hundred and forty-five, and it was the kind of build made for clerking in an investment security house. Then there was drab light-brown hair and drab dark-yellow eyes. The lips were the kind of lips not made for smiling. There was usually a cigarette between the lips. Parry had jumped at the job in the investment security house when he learned it was the kind of job where he could smoke all he pleased. He was a three-pack-a-day man.

In San Quentin he managed to get three packs a day.

See how he snakes those paragraphs together? Note the use of repetition and pacing in another section. Goodis would be a great subject for linguistic study. Just think of the fun to be had with T-sentence analysis:

He sat there looking at the floor and smoking cigarettes. He smoked nine cigarettes in succession. He looked at the stubs in the ash tray. He counted them, saw them dead there in the heaped ashes. Then he wondered how long it would take until the police arrived. He wondered how long it would be until he was dead, because this time he wouldn’t be going back to a cell. This time they had him on a charge that would mean the death sentence. He looked at the window and saw the thick rain coming out of the thick grey sky, the broken sky. He decided to take a run at the window and then stopped and turned his back to the window and looked at the wall. He stood there without moving for almost a full hour. He was going back and taking chunks out of his life and holding them up to examine them. The young and bright yellow days in the hot sun of Maricopa, always bright yellow in every season. The wide and white roads going north from Arizona. The grey and violet of San Francisco. The grey and the heat of the stock room, and the days and nights of nothing, the years of nothing. And the cage in the investment security house, and the stiff white collars of the executives, stiff and newly white every day, and their faces every day, and their voices every day. And the paper, the plain white paper, the pink paper, the pale-green paper, the paper ruled violet and green and black in small ledgers and large ledgers and immense ledgers. And the faces. The faces of statisticians who made forty-five a week, and customers’ men who sometimes made a hundred and a half and sometimes made nothing. And the executives who made fifteen and twenty and thirty thousand a year, and the customers who sat there or stood there and watched the board. The customers, and some of them could walk out of that place and get on their yachts and go out across thousands of miles of water, getting up in the morning when they felt like getting up, fishing or swimming around their grand white yachts, alone out there on the water. And in the evening they would be wearing emerald studs in their shirt-fronts with white formal jackets and black tropical worsted trousers with satin black and gleaming down the sides, down to their gleaming black patent-leather shoes as they danced in the small ballrooms of their yachts with tall thin women with bared shoulders, dripping organdie from their tall thin bodies as they danced or held delicate glasses of champagne in their thin, delicate fingers.

The Library of America is releasing a 5-volume set of Goodis novels in 3/12: Dark Passage (made into film), The Moon and the Gutter (made into film), Nightfall (made into film), The Burglar (made into film), Street of No Return (yes! made into a film). I have a review copy of this volume so I’ll be getting to the other novels soon. This review came as the result of reading my own copy of Dark Passage. I read a Goodis novel some time ago that I wasn’t crazy about and it’s always hard to persuade yourself to take a second spin with an author you weren’t that enthusiastic about for the first round. In this case I’ve no regrets I returned to Goodis. Dark Passage is a masterpiece of noir.

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Filed under Fiction, Goodis David, Swierczynski Duane