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From The Blog
April 15, 2014
My Zombie War: Snyder Beats Romero, and Other Horrific Curiosities
Tim Lebbon
April 15, 2014
Tread Lightly: Walter White, Prom Date
Jennifer Proffitt
April 11, 2014
Lost Classics of Noir: Kiss Her Goodbye by Wade Miller
Brian Greene
April 11, 2014
From the Flames: A Hollywood Stunt Secret
Crime HQ
April 10, 2014
Pierce Brosnan's Ventures West
Edward A. Grainger
Showing posts by: Brian Greene click to see Brian Greene's profile
Apr 11 2014 11:00am

Sometimes a good setting is all an ace novelist needs to pen a memorable story. Give an able scribe a backdrop that is the stuff of fertile literary ground and they can go to work in spinning a yarn that will please their faithful. One such setting, particularly around the middle of the 20th century and particularly for writers of what we now call noir fiction, was a motor court, or auto court. You know, those old roadside motels that were generally found right off highways and that were meant to lure tired travelers in need of a quick, cheap, frills-free stay before they started the next leg of their trek. As I wrote about in an earlier installment of this column, Clifton Adams employed a motor court as primary setting to great effect in his top rate noir novel Death’s Sweet Song. Similarly, Wade Miller very effectively used the same kind of physical grounds as the place around which to base the superb 1956 book Kiss Her Goodbye.

While Adams’s novel has the troubled owner of a motor court as its lead character, the Miller book follows the doings of a pair of guests at one of the inns. Ed Darnell and his little sister Emily wind up at the Quality Auto Court in Jimmock, Calfornia by chance. And while they initially had no plans to remain in their room at the place for more than a night or two, they become long-term visitors.

[Emily, not Ed, is the ticking time bomb...]

Mar 27 2014 10:00am

In the last of these columns I wrote about an author whose work I said would have to be represented in any of list of the great heist novels of all time. This time I’m covering another scribe who demands a place on that list. But John Trinian’s 1961 story Scratch a Thief (later re-titled Once a Thief) is a heist novel and so much more. It’s also, like Ted Lewis’s groundbreaking 1971 Brit Grit classic Jack’s Return Home (Get Carter), a study of the complicated relationship between a pair of brothers. Too, it’s an existential yarn about a guy fighting the uphill battle of attempting to escape his past.

Like Trinian’s 1960 novel The Big Grab (aka Any Number Can Win), Scratch a Thief studies the doings of criminals who are free from the prison at the moment. But while the two main characters from The Big Grab start planning their next crime caper the moment they are out of the pen, the protagonist from Scratch a Thief wants to go straight now that he’s out on parole. The guy we’re talking about is Eddie Slezak. Here’s a short profile of Eddie, per the book’s omniscient narrator:

He was a big lean man, thirty-six years old, with short salt and pepper graying hair, prominent Slavic cheekbones, hard, unsmiling mouth. His eyes were dark, almost black, sensitive, deep-set under thick black brows. His hands were thick, the knuckles showing like hard, white knobs under the embroidery of hair. His shoulders were slightly stooped. His movements were athletically spare, knowing; but with it all there was a strange air about him, almost of apology.

[There's always something trying to pull you back...]

Mar 23 2014 2:00pm

I enjoyed Wallace Stroby’s recent Criminal Element post about some under-seen heist films. It got me thinking about a sister post that would cover some standout examples of heist novels. I’ve yet to mentally compile the list of books that I think should be included, but I knew one thing the second I had the notion: Lionel White would have to be represented. White is the master of the heist (gone wrong) novel. Stanley Kubrick made the top-shelf film noir The Killing based on White’s 1955 novel Clean Break, about a team of men who put together a complicated plan to pull off a big swindle at a race track. Quentin Tarantino has acknowledged White’s writing as being an influence on his heist film Reservoir Dogs.

I’ve read a handful of White’s novels and, honestly, any one of them is worthy of an appreciation here. Clean Break stands up to Kubrick’s brilliant film, and there’s another one called Death Takes the Bus that is so good I skipped a night’s meal because while reading its climax, I couldn’t tear myself away from my Kindle long enough to eat.  But I’m going to zero in on a White heist novel that came out the same year as Clean Break. Let’s talk about The Big Caper.

[There's always time for another bank heist story...]

Mar 16 2014 1:00pm

Cold Caller by Jason StarrI can be a pretty difficult guy to get along with sometimes.

Umm, yeah.  That understatement is made by Bill Moss, the narrator and protagonist of Jason Starr’s first novel Cold Caller. Initially released in 1997 by No Exit Press of the U.K. and then published in the U.S. by Norton the following year, Cold Caller is a savage, nightmarish work of contemporary urban noir. Comparisons to Jim Thompson immediately abounded. Starr was just beginning what continues to be a celebrated career.

But about that debut. So, Moss is a guy who has an M.B.A. and who currently resides in New York City. He used to hold a high-level advertising job, but that gig came to an end and now he’s a telemarketer. The phone “cold calling” job was only supposed to be something to keep a paycheck coming in while he looked for another position more suited to his skill set. But at the time of the story he’s been stuck doing the menial work for two years. He’s good at it, but what business school grad wants to be a time clock-punching phone pest? In his personal life Moss has a live-in girlfriend. He and his steady are both in their early 30s. She’s ready for the altar but Moss says he only wants to get married after he’s gotten his career back on track. In the meantime he can’t get it up for her, although he still finds her attractive. And he’s obsessed with having a foray with a prostitute.

[Telemarketing, prostitution, this novel's got it all...]

Feb 26 2014 12:30pm

In the last of these columns, I compared (after saying I wouldn’t) an excellent work of noir fiction with a film that was made from its story. This time around I’m covering a book that simply reminds me of a favorite film.  There are significant differences between the 1974 movie The Parallax View and Adam Kennedy’s 1975 novel The Domino Principle, but there are also striking resemblances. Both are sinister, tense, horrifying tales involving secret organizations who recruit assassins. Both are paranoia-inducing yarns that can make you feel like any of us could have our willpower taken away from us if certain entities decided they needed us. Both are of supremely high quality.

But we’re here to discuss Kennedy’s book. In addition to being a riveting thriller, it has some essential noir elements: it’s short and tight – not a wasted word from cover to cover. Its language is basic. It’s utterly devoid of romanticized notions.  It’s angering and terrifying. It’s as suspenseful as it is hardboiled.

The story involves and is told by a guy named Roy Tucker. He’s doing time for killing his wife’s first husband, who’d also been his employer. He sometimes says he was innocent and that the guy offed himself and made it look like Tucker did it in an act of vengeance, Tucker having stolen his wife’s heart. Other times, you start the think Tucker may have committed that crime. In any case, he got convicted and now he’s in the pen, wasting away on a life sentence. But suuddenly, the warden has him in for a couple of strange meetings, and then introduces him to some gentlemen from the outside that appear to have some interest in him. Soon enough it becomes clear that these men have some kind of use for Tucker. They need his help so bad, they’re willing to get him out of prison. If gaining freedom from his cell isn’t enough motivation for Tucker to agree to their deal (whatever that might be – they’re not saying what he has to do for them), they throw in the add-on bait that they will reunite him with his wife. It’s clear that these men have the power to make all these things happen. And somebody that powerful must have some big plans for Tucker if they’re willing to do all that for him, right? Right.

[Does this sound sketchy to anyone else...]

Feb 6 2014 12:30pm

Detour by Martin M. GoldsmithThe book vs. the movie. Always interesting to compare the relative merits of a film to the written text its story is based upon. For me as for many, the book usually wins this battle. I can think of some examples of the opposite being true in my opinion, though.  One striking example is The Last Detail; nothing at all wrong with Darryl Poniscan’s 1969 novel, but to my mind it’s merely a decent book while Hal Ashby’s 1973 movie of the same title, starring Jack Nicholson who is simply perfect in his role, is a stone classic.

Then there’s Detour. Despite the opening paragraph here, I’m not going to spend much time comparing Martin M. Goldsmith’s 1939 novel with the film version from ’45 that was directed by Edgar G. Ulmer. The comparison would be unfair to the book. For one thing, I just now got around to reading the novel (what took me so long?) whereas I first watched the movie (which I’ve now seen maybe six or seven time) years (decades?) ago. For another, the big screen version is possibly my single favorite example of my favorite type of movie (film noir, duh). Also, because I’d seen the movie before reading the book, I didn’t get all of the suspense aspect I could have from the read, and tension is a big part of what drives the tale. The book never had a chance.

Still, taken unto itself and compared to other literary works of its kind, Detour is a hell of a novel. And it’s an unheralded classic of noir fiction. It’s as tough as the film. In fact it’s rawer, with one female character talking about using a douche after a roll in the hay with a guy, and another character smoking dope while he drives down the highway. It’s moving in its grimness, just like the film, and has the same kind of bleak outlook that is a hallmark of top shelf noir. I’ll back that last claim up with some passages from the book in a second here, but first a little context for those who don’t know the story:

[Here's a refresher...]

Jan 12 2014 1:00pm

Ida Lupino’s acting career in movies was glorious enough to make of her a hall of fame-level screen performer. My personal favorite of the films she acted in is Moontide, a standout example of film noir partly directed by Fritz Lang, co-starring Jean Gabin, and written by Frank O’Hara.  But she did so much more as an actor than what shows on her silver screen credits. She was versatile enough to guest star on a variety of different types of TV shows, including some of the better-done programs to ever hit the tube: The Twilight Zone, Batman, 77 Sunset Strip, etc. etc. etc.

She did so much more than just act, too. And it’s not enough to merely state that she also directed, not even enough to point out that she was a film and TV director at times when a woman taking on such duties was newsworthy. In praising her groundbreaking work, you even have to look beyond the startlingly impressive facts that she not only is the only woman to have directed an episode of The Twilight Zone (“The Masks,” one of my faves) but is the only person of either gender to have directed one episode of that fine program and acted in another. No, Ida had even more in her than all of that. She is in the books as the first woman to have directed a film noir. (Damn, Ida!) And with Kino Video having just released a new Blu Ray version of that film – 1953’s The Hitch-Hiker – now is a good time to pause for a moment and reflect on that movie.


Jan 10 2014 10:45am

A quiet autumn Saturday in a rustic town near Glasgow. The rural idyll gets shaken up when a conspicuous automobile comes racing around the lanes at dangerously high speeds, nearly plowing down bystanders. The car, carrying two youngish passengers, makes an even more surprising move by coming to an abrupt stop on the grounds of a hospital. The intrigue thickens when the driver then jumps out of the buggy and flees the scene on foot. But none of this compares to the drama that unfolds when people get a look at the passenger, who turns out to be unconscious in his seat; soon it becomes clear that he’s dead.

And if that’s not enough of an event for one day in the sleepy town, things get really interesting when the identity of the deceased is revealed to be Tom McDowell, 19-year-old son of one of the area’s leading figures: successful businessman and high-level politician Frank McDowell. And that ain’t all; young McDowell, who bears no external injuries at the time of his passing, died from an overdose of heroin.

Pretty heady opening, right? And the book – Hugh C. Rae’s 1972 crime thriller The Shooting Gallery – only gets more and more engrossing from there. The tale has a three-tiered perspective: (1) It follows the police’s investigation into the death, focusing on the actions of Superintendent McCaig, a recurring character in some of Rae’s novels and a man who has bitter connections to Frank McDowell; there were once rumors that McCaig’s estranged wife had an affair with the promiscuous McDowell, who in his role as local politician has made a habit of publicly criticizing McCaig’s police work. (2) It studies the thoughts, feelings, and actions of both the McDowell parents in the wake of their son’s abrupt death. (3) It keeps tabs on the goings-on between a drug-pushing tandem, who fear that the investigation into McDowell’s o.d. will lead the police (or “blues,” as they call the fuzz) to them.

[Don't let the blues get you down!]

Dec 18 2013 4:30pm

Hardman by David Karp, published 1953 by Lion BooksA hardboiled novel about a hardboiled novelist.  A main character who is a hard man, who has the last name Hardman. Might as well just get straight to the point, huh?

Get to the point David Karp did with this no-frills novel from 1953. Originally published by Lion Books (who, in their short run over the late ‘40s to mid-‘50s also issued titles by the likes of Jim Thompson, David Goodis, and Day Keene), Hardman is the kind of raw, unsentimental book that thrills the noir-loving set.

That main character’s full name is Jack Hardman. He comes up as a streetwise New York kid, whose parents don’t give a damn about him, and who’s often in trouble with authority figures. As a very young man, he gets pulled in for a statutory rape charge. The judge who hears the case sees some potential in Hardman’s character and sentences him to probation, under his own watch. The judge reads some ultra-realistic writings Hardman does, where he describes the brutal lifestyle he has led to that point, including depictions of the grim people and places therein, and the judge believes he has a potential writer under his care. The judge shows Hardman’s scribblings to a friend of his who is a professional in the publishing world. This man agrees that Hardman is meant to be an author, then off goes the story.

Fast forward some number of years, and Hardman is now a wildly successful writer. His books are not of such literary quality that he’s likely to win any awards or receive critical acclaim, meanwhile, they’re salacious enough that his publisher and literary agency are always on the verge of being sued by some kind of decency-protecting organization. But the books sell in large numbers to a loyal audience always ready to pounce on his next release. Hardman allows no distractions while he’s writing his godless novels, will even turn down the offer of some steamy nookie from his best ladyfriend when he’s at work on a book. He doesn’t do revisions and generally doesn’t read any of his own works after he turns them in. He is a fierce man who focuses clearly on what he wants at a given moment.

Hardman is a bully. People are just objects to him, to be used if they serve a purpose, to be ignored or abused otherwise. Throughout the story, he terrorizes and brutalizes innocent bystanders unlucky enough to cross his hedonistic path. Some of his most viciously boorish antics take place at the office of his literary agent, who happens to be a childhood “friend” (the quotes are needed there because it’s a huge stretch to say that Hardman is a friend to anybody).

[Art hasn't made free a gentle spirit...]

Dec 10 2013 2:00pm

Invasion of Bee Girls (1973), also known under the title Graveyard TrampsRoger Ebert said of Invasion of the Bee Girls, at the time of its 1973 release, “[it] is the best schlock soft-core science fiction movie since maybe The Vengeance of She." Wow. And did Ebert invent a genre there?

In writing about this movie, which is my personal top 10 all time favorite cult films, I don’t want to get bogged down with a long rundown of its plot. For one thing, anyone reading this could get that from IMDB or 20-30 other places on the web. For another, people who haven’t seen the movie, and want to, should experience it the way I originally did: with only a vague sense of what it is about. Let it surprise you.

But, for some reference, here are a few particulars: the tale is set in a place called Peckham, in California. It’s a small town that’s home to a scientific research complex. Men, both inside and outside of the science center, are dying of heart failure. And none of them had cardiac conditions before. Autopsies reveal that they were all into some intense nookie at the time of their passing; or, as one character states, they were “coming and going at the same time.” Because the research center is government-sponsored, the feds get interested and send in one of their agents to investigate.

The cast is ideal. Anitra Ford, one of the original “Barker’s Beauties” models on The Price is Right, portrays a sultry, remote, dangerous lady scientist. 1968's Playboy Playmate of the Year Victoria Vetri is another researcher, and is the good-girl sexy scientist, to balance out Ford’s bad girl-sexy scientist. William Smith, who has an acting CV that goes on forever and who had played badass motorcycle dudes prior to Bee Girls, is the federal agent. That trio makes up the main players, but there are several enjoyable side characters.

Anitra Ford in Bee Girls

Smith, who was gracious enough to answer a few questions of mine about the movie, describes how he came to take on the role of the hunky agent Neil Agar.

Editor's note: Just in case you weren't sure yet... like many other theatrical releases of its era, this film contains abundant skin and frankly sexual references.

[Even suspicious G-men are sexy in Peckham...]

Nov 30 2013 9:45pm

The Big Blind by Ray BanksExistentially speaking, Alan Slater isn’t exactly moving mountains. At age 32, he’s a home windows salesman who drinks too much, smokes too much, and has such an anger management problem that he’s stooped to using a self-help method of counting dolphins to try and keep his head together during his many flare-ups. His boss seems to get a kick out of sending him on false sales leads, and while his 21-year old girlfriend is sexy and smart, their relationship brings him as much aggravation as it does satisfaction.

All of that notwithstanding, if it wasn’t for Slater’s friendship with his co-worker Les Beale, he would be just another regular bloke plodding his way along. If Slater’s a guy whose self-actualization process could use an overhaul, Beale is just a flat-out loser. But he’s worse than that, because he’s also dangerous. Beale abuses substances and he also abuses people. He’s a bully, a user, a boor, a racist, a gambling addict, and he’s the worst kind of ne’er-do-well: the kind who always thinks he’s just on the verge of hitting his big stroke of good fortune. Slater’s relationship with his girlfriend might be troubled, but at least he has a girl; Beale’s wife, fed up with his ways, left him some time ago, and took their daughter along with her. Beale’s the kind of shit that, when he goes down he has no qualms about taking others with him. Beale is Slater’s albatross. But he’s also Slater’s only friend.

As Slater, the narrator of the novel under discussion here—Ray Banks’s The Big Blind—describes his troublesome pal in an early part of the tale:

Beale’s a man that most people have trouble spending an hour with, me included. This is why I drink so much.

[With friends like this...]

Oct 26 2013 9:00pm

French novelist Pascal Garnier (1949-2010)Claude Chabrol’s 1970 French new wave film Le Boucher involves a downcast butcher who becomes involved with a pretty schoolteacher in a provincial town; their blossoming relationship is interrupted by a series of murders that occur in the little village, and it seems one member of the couple might have something to do with the deaths. In Wim Wenders’ 1972 movie The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick (based on the avante-garde Peter Handke novel from ’70), a soccer player who is ejected from a game drifts away from his team and into random but murderous danger. In both stories, a person commits brutal crimes for no apparent reason, seemingly driven to these acts by some longstanding twisted-ness that’s been lurking inside them, festering away under their calm exterior and just waiting for an excuse to erupt.

If those kinds of tales—where bleak existentialism meets grisly crime—do something for you, then the novels of Frenchman Pascal Garnier are just about a sure bet for you. Likewise, if you appreciate Georges Simenon’s romans durs, i.e. his harder, edgier novels, Garnier is your boy. Thanks to a run of English translations of some of Garnier’s standout titles that have been published over the last few years, those of us who don’t read French can now enjoy some of the work of the obscure (at least here in the U.S.) but brilliant novelist.

Simenon is the writer who gets name-checked the most when people critique Garnier’s novels and search for comparisons. Like Simenon, Garnier (who was born in 1949 and died in 2010) had a flair for combining the humdrum with the extreme. Garnier’s particular speciality, as evidenced in the four novels under discussion below, was looking inside the psyches and hearts of small-town people who have reached a point of desperation. In studying these characters’ lives and acts, he routinely tosses off penetrating philosophical truths like they’re afterthoughts, as the French do so well. There’s dark humor in these short novels, lots of apparently arbitrary brutality that’s all the more chilling due to its seeming randomness, colorful characters, and some lines and passages that hit such a deep place, you just have to put the book down and reflect for a while after reading them.

Garnier, who only began writing when he was 35, was also a painter and a rock-and-roller. In addition to his philosophical crime novels, he penned short stories and kids books. But this article is a focus on the four titles Gallic has gifted us— translations by Melanie Florence and Emily Boyce—so let’s plow ahead with a rundown of each, with the original French publication date noted:

[Come closer to the abyss...]

Oct 2 2013 6:00pm

IViolent Saturday by W.L. Heath (1955)n a previous Lost Classics of Noir column, I wrote about a book that is an example of its author doing a genre jump: writing in a vein that is something other than that for which he/she is generally known. Another intriguing type of novel is something I think of as a two-for-one, where the book is really of two different genres simultaneously. James Ross’s fine They Don’t Dance Much, for example, is both a work of Southern literary fiction and a noir story. W.L. Heath’s 1955 tale Violent Saturday has the exact same duality as the Ross book. It’s both a Southern social/literary novel and a crime story. And it’s excellent.

Set in the town of Morgan, Alabama, not far from Birmingham, the story occurs over a single weekend in the summer. It’s an eventful couple of days in the generally quiet burg, because three men from Memphis have come to town to rob the local bank on Saturday afternoon. Heath’s set-up is perfect. He shows the cons doing all the prep work before they pull the job, and meanwhile, introduces the reader to many of the people who live in Morgan. In particular, his omniscient narrator gives us a peek into the lives of some of the individuals who will be forced into the fray of the crime scene. We come away with an understanding of just exactly who these citizens are, whose lives are about to be shaken up. And we’re seeing all this at the same time that we’re following the crooks as they get ready to pull the heist.

[These worlds will collide in violence...]

Sep 6 2013 2:00pm

Death's Sweet Song by Clifton AdamsGood writing is good writing. Able scribes known for their mastery of one genre often show themselves capable of seamlessly pulling off effective works when practicing other types of writing. I’m sure we could have a lively discussion here about our favorite books that are the results of authors doing a genre jump. When I think of classic works of noir fiction that were penned by writers not primarily known for working that terrain, I immediately zone in on Robert Edmond Alter, who mostly wrote kids books and only tried his hand at a few titles of adult fiction, yet authored Carny Kill, a standout of noir. Similarly, Clifton Adams was mostly known for his Western novels and stories, in fact twice won the coveted Spur Award for his efforts in that milieu. I strongly recommend his novel A Partnership With Death, which really can be viewed as cowboy noir. And when he wrote straight, non-Western crime fiction, Adams showed himself to be totally in command of his pen. One of his noir novels, 1955’s Death Sweet Song, is outstanding.

Originally published as a Fawcett Gold Medal title, Death’s Sweet Song, like many great examples or noir fiction, centers around one troubled character—a person who lives in a way that has them going against the ways of the indifferent-to-hostile society around them. Adams’s distressed lead character in this book is a 30-ish guy named Joe Hooper. Before we get into Joe’s deal, let’s let him tell us about Creston, Oklahoma: his hometown and the setting of the story he narrates:

When you take 66 into Creston, your first impression is that it’s a pretty good-sized place. The first things you see are the oil-well supply houses, big sprawling buildings and sheds, and long rows of powerful cementing trucks, pumpers, testing and drilling equipment. Acres of buildings and acres of trucks, millions of dollars’ worth of equipment. It’s pretty impressive the first time you see it.

Right next to the railroad are the grain elevators, great towering cement columns standing solid and proud like lonesome skyscrapers in the middle of the prairie. And then there’s the big overpass at the railroad. You cross the overpass and drop down on the other side and you’re in Creston.

You take one look at the town and feel cheated.

You’ve been led to expect great things and here you are in the middle of another one-horse prairie town. I’d lived here all my life, knocking out four years in the Army, and I never failed to be disappointed when I looked at it. It was a fairly clean town, as prairie towns go, once you moved away from the cluster of produce and feed companies that huddled around the grain elevators. Coming down the town side of the overpass, you could see it all. The straight, treeless streets. The frame houses and parched lawns. The new, raw-looking high school, the cement tennis courts, the white afterthought of a steeple on the Baptist church.

 It was my home. A place where eight thousand people, more or less, lived, loved, hated, worshipped, spawned. I knew everybody and everybody knew me, and that’s the kind of arrangement you can get pretty sick of after a while.       

[First familiarity, then contempt, then crime...]

Aug 31 2013 11:00am

Billboard Man by Jim FusilliBillboard Man by Jim Fusilli is the second in the Sam series of noir thrillers about a drifter antihero (available September 3, 2013).

Billboard Man is Jim Fusilli’s sequel to his 2012 novel Road to Nowhere.

It’s easy to understand why Fusilli wanted to write a continuation of Road to Nowhere. RTN is an excellent, nearly flawless novel, and it contains a highly intriguing lead character. Anyone who enjoyed that book would want to read more yarns that center around its protagonist. So, yeah, a sequel, natch.

Sequels are tough though, particularly when they follow up on something of the quality level of Road to Nowhere. Readers are likely to have strong feelings about the first book, will go over the second installment with an acutely critical eye. Did it match the first book or is it a fail? Did it take things somewhere the other one didn’t? Do the recurring characters hold true to how they came off in the other novel? Did the writer make his or her readers want even more of this character, or did he/she blow it?

[It's a thin line between, well, you know...]

Aug 15 2013 4:00pm

Revenge of the Lizard Club by Thea StiltonThe best way to review a children’s book is to take it to the kids themselves! Blogger Brian Greene asked his daughter Violet to review the graphic novel Revenge of the Lizard Club by Thea Stilton (available August 20, 2013).

Here’s what she had to say (with a little help from her dad).

I loved Terrie Farley Moran’s post here of a few months back, where she had her grandchildren review a couple of kids’ books. I absolutely agree that the people best positioned to review kid lit are the little ones themselves. There’s a freshness to their perspective, and in their choices of words, that we aged ones can never reach.

[Out of the mouths of babes...]

Aug 11 2013 10:00am

Night TidePublic libraries are havens. When in my early 20s, I spent a ridiculous amount of time in a library in the downtown part of Norfolk, Virginia. I was so poor then that I couldn’t afford to buy books, not even from the bookshop where I clerked and was entitled to an employee discount. But books were far from the only items I got from the library. I also borrowed movies there, and records. If my library had loaned out clothing items, I probably would’ve gotten my duds from there. Ok, maybe not that.

Once, while perusing their small-but-impressive VHS tape collection, I happened across a title that immediately arrested my attention. It was called Night Tide, was from the early ‘60s, starred Dennis Hopper, and was some kind of quirky fairy tale story involving a mermaid and a sailor. How had I never heard of this movie, never mind never seen it? Oh, well. Thanks to my library, I was now hipped to it. And thanks to my library card, I was about to see it.

After one viewing, I was astounded by the high quality of the movie. I watched it again and liked it even more. Then I called all my local film buff friends and invited them over for a screening. They were to bring the booze and snacks, I was to show them an obscure Dennis Hopper movie that would wow them. Nobody was let down.

[Oh good!...]

Jul 27 2013 3:15pm

Ride the Pink Horse by Dorothy B. Hughes- Dell editionPower corrupts. We know this, right?

Willis Douglass, one of the main characters from Ride the Pink HorseDorothy B. Hughes’s superb 1946 work of noir fiction—embodies the maxim. Douglass, a former Illinois Senator, was once a noble enough man to take in a Chicago street punk named Sailor, put the kid through some schooling at a city university, and later employ him as his confidential secretary. But something happened to Douglass’s soul over his time representing the good people of Illinois from his Washington, D.C. office. He turned so corrupt that by the time he left Washington, he had a team of bad boys in his corner, to the point where he carried on more like a mob boss than an elected politician. Along the way, Sailor became just another one of Douglass’s henchmen aiding him in his various dirty deeds. And when Douglass, now an ex-Senator living back in Chicago, decides life would be more convenient if his wife were dead, Sailor is very much a part of the multi-layered plot he hatches.

Douglass’s wife does get killed. I’m not ruining any of the book’s suspense by revealing that. However, several aspects of the ex-Senator’s plan—both in the murder itself and in how he wants the police to believe it happened—go awry, and all of that intrigue, I will leave for readers to discover on their own.  Suffice to say that after the dust settles, Sailor very much wants to have a word with his boss.

[But first, he'll have to find him...]

Jul 19 2013 10:00am

Easy Go by Michael Crichton, writing as John LangeEasy Go is one of 10 early Michael Crichton novels being reissued as an e-book (available July 23, 2013).

The prospect of wealth does strange things to people.

That quote, from one of the characters in this 1968 novel, originally published as The Last Tomb, goes a long way toward summing up the overriding theme of the story. And the following bit of chatter from the third-person narrator nicely sums up the setup:

For the first time in his life, Harold Barnaby, 41, associate professor of archaeology at the University of Chicago, was contemplating dishonesty on a grand scale.

Barnaby, an Egyptologist who specializes in translating hieroglyphics, is on a research trip in Cairo. He discovers an especially cryptic hieroglyphic that tells of a tomb—holding the remains of a Pharaoh who seems to have been an exceptionally evil man—that no one else has discovered in all the 3,000 years it’s been there. It could be The. Last. Tomb. What Barnaby reads tells him not only about the tomb, but how to find it. Excited but initially uncertain what to do with this potentially life-changing discovery, Barnaby decides to confide in Robert Pierce, an American freelance journalist on assignment in Cairo, when the two (who knew each other during the Korean War) run into each other at a bar.

[War buddies and a rare map. . .what could go wrong?]

Jul 14 2013 3:30pm

He Died with His Eyes Open by Derek RaymondWhile working on a friend’s music/culture magazine too many years ago, I once typeset a record review where the writer mentioned that the band under consideration never had pictures of themselves on any of the their album covers. He noted this in a praising way, the suggestion being that there was something cheesy about band photos on the covers. The music should speak for itself, he implied, and why not use the cover space for some kind of visually arresting, non-human image? I wasn’t sure I wholeheartedly agreed with this line of thinking–just so many great band photos on album covers that are so much a part of the album, really–but I had to admit that the band’s way of thinking, and the writer’s take on it, gave me cause to stop and reflect for a little.

It might be a stretch to make the following leap, but this comparison has occurred to me so I’m going to write it out: Derek Raymond, in authoring the four noir novels known as the Factory books, took this kind of anonymity-as-artful-technique a step further, by having the narrator and protagonist of those books be not only faceless, but nameless.  Raymond, who along with Ted Lewis is considered by many to be the originator of the British school of hardboiled crime fiction, employed this method to great effect; his narrator not having a face you can visualize, or a name you can know him by, serves to evoke the kind of desolate atmosphere Raymond set to establish in the books. It works.

[Let's hear more about whoever it is...]