Tuesday, October 27, 2009

"-And the Girl Screamed" by Gil Brewer

Crest Book No. 147, 1956

The story begins with our hero, Cliff,  being denied an opportunity to return to the police force because a panel of cops and prominent citizens decide he can't handle a gun after having his arm permanently injured by an escaped convict.  The chief opposition to his return is mounted by Edward Thayer, with whose wife Cliff has been having an affair.  Cliff is despondent at the panel’s decision, his only solace is the knowledge that he is closer than ever to convincing Eve Thayer to leave her husband.  That night Cliff and Eve are on the beach discussing how they can deal with Edward, who has vowed to destroy both Cliff and Eve if they don’t terminate their affair, when . . .

A girl screamed.  It was the damnedest thing I’d ever heard.  It ripped across the soft night, a crazed shriek of pure helplessness and fear.

Cliff and Eve discover a young blond, dead.  They catch a glimpse of the killer and he, perhaps, sees them.  While trying to figure out how to deal with the situation without making their seaside tryst public knowledge, Cliff makes a mistake that will soon make him the prime suspect in the young girl’s murder. 

While -And The Girl Screamed employs the very common theme of a man wrongly accused trying to clear his name while on the run from the cops, it is relatively original in its approach and highly entertaining.  Brewer was firing on all cylinders and I rank The Girl up there with some of his best.  I found it far superior to So Rich, So Dead, another man wrongly accused story. 

The entertainment value comes primarily from the fact that the killer turns out to be the leader of a vicious gang of high school kids.  Cliff has some violent run-ins with the gang and is nearly seduced by one of the  gang’s 16 year-old female members.  This is the first Brewer novel I’ve come across that incorporates a 50s social scare issue.  If parents don’t pay enough attention to their kids, obviously they will form a hyper-violent and depraved youth gang while hiding it through decent grades and football scholarships.  It's a good thing that all those happy young families in the 50s had novels like this to warn them of the perils lurking in the dark side of suburbia.  I particularly liked the message at the end:

“Something’s got to be done about all those kids.” Andy said.  “Jinny’s dead, and God knows what a jury will do to Roberson.  But maybe if we get the town stirred up enough, get their parents feeling guilty enough, we can help the rest of them. They’re young,” he said “they don’t have to spend their lives this crazy way.”

In all seriousness, -And The Girl Screamed is a damned good read.  It’s not hard-boiled and it has a happy ending, but it is a crime story and those dark noir elements, of which Brewer was a master, show through.  Any fan of 50s pulps should enjoy it, if for nothing more than to learn how important it is to pay attention to the kids.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Stop This Man! by Peter Rabe

Hard Case Crime No. 58
Gold Medal No. k1403

Tony Catell is a professional thief. A buddy tips him off about an easy score - a gold ingot kept in a university lab.  Tony gets the gold, but doesn’t realize that it has been used in an experiment and it is radioactive.  Soon the FBI is on his trail.  He manages to stay one step ahead of the feds, but the radioactive gold he is carrying leaves a trail of sickness and death. 

    This setup seems gimmicky and dated.  Indeed, the novel starts slowly and the radioactive gold angle doesn’t really capture the imagination.  The gold, however, is just a Macguffin and novel really starts to pick up steam after the first few chapters. What sets Stop This Man! apart from similar cops and robber/cross-country chase novels is Rabe’s excellent characterization.  He allows his characters to think and act realistically and the settings are appropriately seedy.  The dialogue is hard-boiled, but doesn’t seem contrived.  Catell is not too bright and easily manipulated.  He is, however, a very talented thief and not a guy you want to corner.  By the end of the novel I liked Catell and wanted to see him avoid his inevitable fate. 

    Rabe switches the story between Catell and the activities of the FBI agent trying to track him down.  The portions dealing with the FBI are shorter and, beyond some amusing cop dialogue, don’t add much to the story.  There are a few events in the story that seem tacked on, like Rabe was just trying to add length.  In particular, a chapter or two deals with Catell being waylaid by a hick Sheriff in small-town Arizona.  This isn’t the first 50s crime novel I’ve read that had the story interrupted by just such an event.  Strange . . . .   

    Peter Rabe cranked out quite a few hardboiled novels for Gold Medal.  Stark House Press has
re-published 8 of his novels.  I’ve read that Stop This Man! is not one of Rabe’s better stories.  I think it stands above many of its peers, absent the slow beginning.  Perhaps some of Rabe’s other novels are consistently good from start to finish and I am anxious to try out another one.

For a moment the thought made him see red.  A thousand acrid hates rose in his throat.  He closed his eyes, trying to control the fine trembling that crept through his body. He took a harsh breath. Watch it Catell. You’re getting like a lophead taking the cold turkey.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

"Casino" by Nicholas Pileggi

    I recently was surfing the net and somehow ran across Frank “Lefty” Rosenthal’s website.  Lefty died just about a year ago, but his website is still out there in cyberspace.  For those not in the know, Lefty was long-time handicapper that ran the Stardust Hotel & Casino for the mob in the 70s.  His story was the subject of the Scorcese film Casino, in which he was played by Robert DeNiro, and the book of the same name by Nicholas Pileggi.  Although I love the movie, I knew that Pileggi’s novel would probably contain a much more detailed account of Lefty’s fascinating life and times in Las Vegas, so I decided to check it out. 

    Casino may be a “true crime” novel, but it is pure pulp.  As the ads for National Geographic’s Locked Up Abroad proclaim- real life is better than fiction.  It’s all here: money, the high life, and enough criminal scheming to make your head spin.

    Like the movie, the story begins with Lefty narrowly escaping a car bomb planted in his Cadillac outside of Tony Roma’s in Vegas.  From there Pileggi gives us a detailed look at how the mob became “partners” with the hapless Allen Glick and his Argent Corporation in several Vegas casinos.  The various methods by which the mob skimmed millions of dollars from these casinos and the eventual accidental discovery of the skim by the FBI is told in much greater detail than seen in the movie. 

    Of course, that is only the back story.  The novel really focuses on Lefty’s wild ride as he tries to run the casino while dealing with the Nevada Gaming Commission, his whacked-out wife Geri, and his “friend”, mob wild-man Tony “The Ant” Spilotro (played by Joe Pesci in the movie).  On his website, Lefty was always telling his readers that his life in Vegas wasn’t as great as one would think.  It may not have been pleasant or fun, but it sure was crazy. 

    Casino is a fantastic read for any lover of pulp fiction and crime stories.  Even if you have seen the movie too many times to count, like me, Pileggi’s book is well worth a read.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Hard Case Crime Favorites

I owe a debt of gratitude to Hard Case Crime.  I have always loved film noir, crime stories and detective novels, but I was totally ignorant of the vast catalog of pulp fiction produced in the 1950s PBO scene.  I ran across “The Colorado Kid” while looking at some Stephen King novels, found the HCC website and was awakened to what I had been missing.  HCC has now published over 50 novels and recently celebrated its 5th anniversary.  In honor of that milestone, here are my 5 favorite HCC titles:

1.    “The Vengeful Virgin” by Gil Brewer

This is quintessential pulp, it has it all - femme fatales bewitching a hapless dude into committing the “perfect” crime.  Jack Ruxton, tv salesman meets young Shirley Angela who convinces him to help her kill her sickly uncle so that they can make off with his dough.  Throw in two other unpredictable women and Ruxton finds himself in way over his head. To me, this one epitomizes everything that is great about Hard Case Crime and Brewer became my favorite 50s PBO writer and I'm not sure he wrote anything better than The Vengeful Virgin.

2.    “Little Girl Lost” by Richard Aleas

A modern-day pulp detective story set in NYC.  John Blake investigates the death of his ex-girlfriend after she is inexplicably found dead on the roof of a scummy strip club.  Blake is an imperfect investigator that doesn’t always escape from his mistakes. Aleas draws you in deep and then hits you in the gut.  Dark, direct and tough.

3.    “Fright” by Cornell Woolrich

Woolrich is one of the giants of the genre and Fright does not disappoint.  Prescott Marshall makes a mistake on the eve of his wedding to a high society dame. It’s a mistake that infests his mind and grows like
a weed that eventually strangles him and everyone he loves.  One of the few novels in the HCC canon that genuinely made me tense.  Woorich puts you into Prescott’s head and makes you feel the pain.

4.    “Bust” by Ken Bruen and Jason Starr

Noir comedy done right.  The misadventures of Max, a high-living executive in his own mind, and his shameless secretary Angela.  Not only is it funny, but the comedy is interwoven with an inventive and nasty little crime tale.  Max and Angela devolved into self-referential parody in the sequels, but you can’t go wrong with Bust.

5.    “The Peddler” by Richard S. Prather

Picking the fifth and final title for my favorites list was tough.  I settled on The Peddler because it tells an archetypal pulp story incredibly well. 
Tony Romero has dreams of being big.  He enters the organized crime scene in San Francisco and quickly pushes his way to the top.  Along the way we get an unflinching view of Tony’s dirty business.  Eventually, of course, Tony is spectacularly destroyed by his unchecked ambition and hubris.  Prather’s Shell Scott novels may be a bit silly, but the Peddler is in a different league.

Honorable mentions:

“The Girl With the Long Green Heart” by Lawrence Block
“Home Is the Sailor” by Day Keene
“The Last Match” by David Dodge
“The Last Quarry” by Max Allen Collins
“Robbie’s Wife” by Russell Hill

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

"So Rich, So Dead" by Gil Brewer

Gold Medal No. 196, 1951

“There was this rushing hum . . . Marie reached out toward me, both hands outstretched, her eyes pleading. She was clothed in something silken, diaphanous. Her hair flowed across her shoulders in that soft jet, like the overside of a cloud when the moon is down. She reached toward me, drifted close, yet came no nearer. I tried to tell her to go away, leave me alone.”

So begins the tale of Bill Maddern. Bill is a P.I., running an agency with his brother. He returns from a trip to find his brother dead and a mysterious message regarding a half-million bucks his brother located for a client. He also finds out that his nightmare about Marie came true. She is found dead in his office as well-

"There’s no use going into it. It was sordid and mean and something you have to see sometimes in this business. But you don’t have to think about it if you’re on the outside. You can forget, because it wasn’t you or yours. It was somebody else; somebody your reading about. She had been literally beaten to death. The things that had been done to her probably nobody will ever know except for the killer himself. She’d gone out fighting for her life. She wasn’t Marie now. This wasn’t Marie."

Bill quickly becomes suspect no. 1 in his bro’s murder and goes on the lamb. While hiding out from the police and working to clear his name, Bill meets up with a variety of ne’er-do-wells, including a strange little man named Leander and his babe, Rita. Bill also befriends a sweet young lass that agrees to become his new secretary - after a couple minutes conversation. Suspicious you ask, no, of course not . . .

I’m a huge Gil Brewer fan and have been steadily hunting down and reading his novels. Unfortunately, So Rich, So Dead is my least favorite, so far. Most of the characters, particularly the ladies, are flatly drawn and relatively lifeless. The plot slogs along without too many stand-out scenes or ideas. The nice emotional hook set up with the death of Marie isn’t effectively woven through the plot as Maddern’s driving force. Maddern seems more concerned with making sure the money is secure and clearing his name than he is of getting revenge for Marie's death. You'd never catch Mike Hammer acting that way. The ending, which I gather was supposed to be a surprise, was about as cookie-cutter as you can get for an early 50s P.I. story.

The Leander and Rita characters are the most interesting thing here. Rita’s a blond bombshell that Maddern can’t seem to resist despite knowing she is poison. Brewer informs us, in that subtle 50s kind of way, she “enjoys” the pain Leander dispenses with his cane. Together they put Maddern through the wringer and that is where the book is at its best.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

"The Killer" by Wade Miller

Gold Medal Books 1951

Jake Farrow is a hunting guide in Africa that recently had his ticket jerked for helping a client shoot a lion on the Masai preserve. We find him wallowing in boredom when a mysterious man shows up and offers him an exorbitant sum to guide a hunt - location, prey and client undisclosed. Farrow reluctantly takes the job and ends up in New York.

Turns out Farrow's client wants him to track and kill a bank robber, Clel Bocock, who shot his son during a robbery. Farrow’s reservations to that kind of work are overcome by the apparent brutality of Bocock and, of course, the dollars offered by his client.
The chase takes Farrow from the swamps of the deep South, to Chicago, Yellowstone, Barstow and points between. Along the way he meets Marget, Bocock’s sweet little swamp babe. Marget catches Farrow’s eye but he thinks he leaves her behind when he leaves swamp country. From there the hunt doesn’t quite play out as Farrow expected.

There is nothing fancy about Wade Miller’s writing. Nothing exceptional in the plo
t either, but The Killer is a good straightforward story that keeps moving. It’s almost more of an adventure tale than a hardboiled mystery. Miller’s brilliance shines with a couple of particularly memorable scenes and characters. In Chicago, Farrow runs into Bocock’s other dame, Terese Tyler. They have a couple interesting little scenes together. In one she takes a break from attempting to seduce Farrow so that she can sing for him and tell him how she wants to be a star:

She was silent, sipping her champagne sternly. She grumbled, “I need a break, just one break. I need the reputation, that’s what counts.” She sulkily lit a cigaret, and said between puffs of smoke, “I want to be up there. Be somebody. Get my chance at all the money . . . .”

Later, Farrow runs into a small town Sheriff by the name of Loob that mistakes him for one of Bocock’s gang. Sheriff Loob is a dope with real big plans:

"You’ve already asked for trouble” said Loob in his sweet voice, "Just by meeting up with me. Maybe you don’t understand how much Bocock means to me. I’m a fellow with plans, Farrow, big ones. If I can be the one to put the finger on Bocock - no matter where he’s holed up - there’ll be no stopping me. I’m the county official who built the biggest city hall in Iowa, but that’s just the first step for me. When I
catch Bocock the whole state and country will know about me. In the political game you got to make a splash. You got to get your name in front of people, no matter how."

For a moment you think the novel is going to take a very
strange and very interesting turn. Farrow spends some unpleasant time with Loob, but the story resumes its course. The novel ends with a couple of showdowns, nothing too surprising or fantastic but with credible action and good gunplay.

Wade Miller was a pseudonym for the writing team of Bob Wade and Bill Miller. Together they wrote a pile of pulp novels. Here is a good site summarizing their work. I’ve read some interesting things about their Max Thursday P.I. series. I’ll be reading one of Mr. Thursday’s adventures very soon.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

"Sue Me" - A Twist of Noir No. 139

Christopher Grant over at A Twist of Noir was nice enough to publish my first attempt at flash fiction, a piece entitled Sue Me. You may peruse it here. My writing obviously isn't in line with the exceptional talent usually featured on A Twist of Noir and the other flash fiction blogs noted in my blog list, but I really enjoyed putting pen to paper. I appreciate Christopher's feedback and his willingness to throw my work out there.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

"Up In Honey's Room" by Elmore Leonard

Up In Honey’s Room takes place in the waning days of World War II. Walter Shoen, described as the most boring man alive, is a German butcher living in Detriot. He believes that he is Heinrich Himmler’s identical twin and considers himself a loyal Nazi. He is hiding two escaped German POWs on his farm. Carl Webster is a federal Marshall tracking the escaped POWs. We also meet several other members of an alleged German spy ring including the maniacal cross-dressing Bohdan Kravchenko. At the center of this cast is Walter’s ex-wife, Honey Deal. Honey is a carefree and beautiful blond that seems to instantly seduce every man she meets. Carl enlists Honey to help him get at the POWs through Walter. Carl soon finds himself in a battle with both Honey’s seductive ploys and the ridiculous maneuvering of the spy ring’s hapless members.

Up In Honey’s Room is trademark Leonard from start to finish. It is entirely dialogue-driven - sharply drawn and humorous characters having funny and entertaining conversations. The plot is particularly threadbare and there isn’t much gun play or other action. The spare and somewhat languorous nature of the plot have subjected Up In Honey’s Room to a fair amount of criticism, most calling it a middling entry in Leonard’s catalog, at best. I don’t read Leonard for complex or innovative plots, nor do I expect much action. What I do expect is exactly what Honey delivers, memorable characters that capture and hold my imagination, together with loads of entertaining dialogue. Honey isn’t as rich as Tishomingo Blues or quite as funny as Mr. Paradise, but it immediately captured my attention and I liked the wacky cast of characters.

I don’t have any quotes because I listened to this one on audiobook. Honey delivers a quick, entertaining story. The Carl Webster character was the subject of Leonard’s previous The Hot Kid, which was more favorably reviewed and is next on my audiobook list.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

"Casino Moon" by Peter Blauner & "Fake I.D." by Jason Starr

I think it no coincidence that Hard Case Crime published Casino Moon and Fake I.D. back to back. Both novels star protagonists named Russo and basically tell the same story - Russo is a down on his luck loser stuck in a dead-end life. He wiles away his time dreaming of a way out. An opportunity presents itself. Seems too good to be true at first, but the idea is soon embraced and pursued with unerring zeal. Russo soon finds himself taking small steps in the wrong direction, making small compromises in the name of attaining his goal. Eventually, of course, Russo ends up in uncontrollable downward spiral.

Casino Moon stars Anthony Russo, the adopted son of an Atlantic City mobster. Anthony’s father is constantly hounding him to follow in his footsteps and fully embrace a role in the outfit, while constantly trying to convince the local boss to “make” Anthony, even though he doesn’t have the requisite Sicilian blood. Anthony is not enchanted with mob life. He deplores the crime, the cheap clothes, and perhaps most of all, the company. A life in the mob is the last thing Anthony wants. At the same time he finds failure around every corner. His business ventures fail and he has to rely upon his mob connections to stay afloat. As the pressure mounts, Anthony sees salvation when he meets an ex-boxing champion looking to make a comeback and convinces him to let Anthony be his manager. As Anthony tries to get the champ on the card of the next big fight, he finds himself heading down the very path he so desperately wanted to avoid.

“With each thing I’d done in the last few weeks, I was taking a step away from the person I wanted to be. It was as if by breaking faith with Carla, I’d broken through my own skin. Killing Nicky, borrowing money from Danny Klein, and pimping my girlfriend were the secondary infections. Now I was sick and I didn’t know how to get better.”

Eventually Anthony seems to realize the truth of his situation. He recognizes it, but doesn’t understand it:

"But pride and ambition were no match for seven hundred years of tradition and the lessons Vin had drummed into me. If you’re brought up a certain way, you can spend your whole life denying it, but eventually some part of it’s going to come out. All the houses seemed low, gray, and falling apart. No matter how much I’d struggled and hustled, it seemed I hadn’t really gone anywhere."

Casino Moon is rich in detail and dramatically invokes the seedy world of Atlantic City and the rather pathetic mobsters that inhabit it. You find yourself pulling for Anthony, though you know he is doomed.

Where Casino Moon is rich and involved, Fake I.D. is brutal and direct. Tommy Russo is a gambling addict, nurturing a dying dream to be an actor. He keeps himself in business by working as a bouncer in a New York City bar. While sitting in his car waiting for the track to open, Tommy is presented with the opportunity to join a horse-owning syndicate. Although skeptical at first, Tommy soon becomes obsessed with the idea and begins a quest to put together the 10 grand he needs to join the syndicate. Of course, Tommy finds himself going further and further in the wrong direction as he tries to put together the cash. When he does get the money, he has sown the seeds of his destruction. All Tommy can see, however, is how is going to be a big-shot horse owner.

“Walking slowing so I wouldn’t sweat up my suit, I headed toward the entrance of the clubhouse. The old guy at the admission window didn’t even look at me as he took my three bucks. When I was a famous horse owner I knew things would be a lot different. I’d probably have a pass, go through a special entrance, and the guy at the door would say, “Good Morning Mr. Russo,” and if he was lucky, I’d look at him and say good morning back. Going to the track, I felt like I was stepping into my new life. Outside was the old Tommy Russo, and I wasn’t sad to see him go.”

While Anthony Russo is sympathetic, Tommy Russo is not. Anthony seemed to have no way out, like he was a victim of unavoidable destiny. Tommy, on the other hand, seems to ignore possible sources of salvation in favor of a runaway freight train of self-destruction. You are left wondering whether Tommy started out good, or whether he was rotten to the core all along. Reading Fake I.D. is like watching a building fall down or a spectacular crash, you just can't turn away.

Casino Moon and Fake I.D. provide a wonderful example of two very distinct ways to build a story from a common plot. I would imagine that Charles Ardai picked these two novels for back to back publication by HCC for that very reason. Ultimately, I preferred Fake I.D.’s punch to the face directness over Casino Moon’s detailed dramatic arc. That said, Casino Moon is very well done and provides a gritty alternative to the all-to-common glamorized mobster stories, without losing the rich detail any good mobster story needs.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Off To Do Justice

I'm off to do justice for a client in an 18 day jury trial starting June 1st. I've read enough lately to make my eyes bleed and typed boxes full of documents. Of course, none of that reading or typing has been recreational. This blog hasn't been forgotten, just regretfully set aside. I hope to get a review of Gil Brewer's Flight to Darkness up before the trial, but it might not happen.

I'll be back in action toward the end of June. I have some interesting things planned, including a series of reviews of the five or six Hard Case Crime novels that made lasting impressions on me. Until then, I hope you keep up your reading and enjoy the first few weeks of summer!

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

"Death Rides A Horse" the 1967 Film

I recently happened upon Death Rides a Horse on the Encore Western channel late one night. I saw that it starred Lee Van Cleef (one of the greatest) so I decided to check it out despite the blurb review in the channel guide. The blurb gave it two stars and said it was a "standard tale" about a cowboy out to revenge the death of his family. How horribly wrong the dolt that wrote that was!

Although Death Rides a Horse could be subjected to many of the criticisms applicable to most spaghetti westerns, labeling it “standard” is a grave injustice indeed. The film begins with a brutally violent scene in which we see through the eyes of a young boy as his family is shot in cold blood by a gang of outlaws, the mother and teenage sister are raped before being shot. The scene is truly unflinching. My wife remarked that she had never seen a film so starkly portray the murder of a child. The outlaws overlook the boy and he survives and grows into a deadly gunslinger fueled with the mad desire to avenge his family. The gunslinger is played by John Phillip Law. Law is no Eastwood, but he is okay. His acting is a bit flat and he voices his lines in a deadpan deep baritone, kind of like a John Wayne in slow motion. For me, Law's "so bad its good" performance only adds to the film.

Law runs into Van Cleef and they discover they are after the same group of outlaws. Van Cleef wants money from the bad guys, while Law wants them dead. Thus, they find themselves in a game of one-upmanship, each trying to get to the bad guys first. I felt the first half of the film to be at the level of masterpiece. The stark landscape, violence, and most of all the jarring Ennio Morricone score, set an almost hallucinatory mood. There are a couple of the best revenge killing scenes ever put on film.

The movie does degenerate into a bit more “standard” Western fare in its third-act. The finale sets Van Cleef and Law in a small Mexican village, which they must defend against a force of bad guys that has somehow quadrupled in size. There is a predictable plot twist, but the ending is well-done. Van Cleef, the Morricone score, and the terrific first hour elevate the film well above some two-star "standard".

This post is a bit off-topic for this blog, but I enjoyed the film so much I wanted to point it out to any noir lover that also likes westerns, and particularly spaghetti westerns. Even though it lacks Clint Eastwood, it is a real treat. An interesting side note - Quentin Tarantino incorporated several elements of Death Rides a Horse into Kill Bill, including the score and the hero “seeing red” when encountering the bad guys.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

“The Violent Ones”

by Howard Hunt

Gold Medal No. 113 1950

Paul Cameron just finished a stretch in the big house for beating his wife’s lover into paralysis. He is haunted by his wife’s betrayal and by experiencing life behind bars.

He opened his hands slowly and looked at them. They were flushing with blood again, blood that surged back into the pallid, drained palms. Palm. Blood on the Palms. Palm Sunday. Bloody Sunday, when you smashed the taunting face of a devil you hated – Roy Sprackling, who laughed when you learned about him and your wife. The sneering swine who had hit you first and kicked you when you were down; kicked you until you had dragged yourself up and flat-handed the side of the devil’s neck, dropping him to the rug, where he lay bloodily hemorrhaging, and you laughed uncontrollably until people took you away . . . . pg. 6

Now Cameron is on a plane to Paris to see an old friend from the war, Phil Thorne. Thorne called, said there was trouble, he needed help. Soon Cameron will discover that Thorne has been blackmailed into helping a group of communists steal some gold that disappeared during the war and smuggle it out of France. He will find himself in the middle of complex machinations where communists, corrupt police and the women he loved during the war all seem to be one step ahead of him.

He had to bend toward her to hear what she was saying: “. . . never go back to what we used to be. Never.” “No” he said. “But we can take out the good and forget the bad. If we live hard enough for each other, we can forget the past.”

pg. 72

The Violent Ones is a sort of strange hybrid between a detective story, a spy story and a vengeance story. Cameron bounces around France trying to make sense of a complex web of death and deceit. As he fights his way through the maze, bodies pile up and he discovers that the past is just that – the past.

Well she was gone, too. Vanished in the night. The soul’s incredible loneliness . . . He knew that he was lonely, sick to the bone with loneliness that he could counteract only momentarily with the emotional purge that went with brutality. Sometime that need for escape would smother him with its crushing demands, and he would regain consciousness to find that he had killed someone in an extraordinarily savage way. pg. 125

Hunt is adept at setting scenes in one or two lines and at distilling action down to its basic elements. He provides no paint-by-numbers explanations of his plot, let alone his characters' thoughts or motivations. Hunt writes with an economy of words and a wider vocabulary that one often sees in these pulp novels. Sometimes, in fact, his choice of words can spoil the believability of his tale. I can hardly imagine, for example, a grungy detective saying:

“I need hardly elaborate on the fact that you have chosen to insert yourself into a dangerous milieu.”

Well, maybe in France.

Although The Violent Ones certainly doesn’t rank among my favorite vintage pulps, I found Hunt's writing style to be quite interesting and I plan to investigate his other work. Howard Hunt, of course, led a most interesting life. Some say he took his spy stories a little bit too seriously. Here is a fascinating account from Rolling Stone. Hard Case Crime just published Hunt’s House Dick.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

“Bone Dry”
by Ben Rehder

I picked up the audiobook version of Bone Dry more or less at random off the shelf at the library. Accordingly, I wasn’t expecting much. In fact, I didn’t know what to expect at all. What I found was the best humorous crime/mystery novel I have experienced since Elmore Leonard’s Mr. Paradise. Bone Dry is set in Blanco County Texas and revolves around the adventures of the County game warden, John Marlin. On the first day of deer season a hunter’s carefully laid plans are spoiled when a tall blonde goddess walks into his hunting spot, drops her pants and urinates - ensuring that deer will avoid the area. Later, this same blonde dish uses her feminine wiles to disarm and humiliate another hapless deer hunter. Amusing as those events were, Marlin soon finds himself in the middle of much more serious matters. Soon, a hunter is found dead and Blanco County is hit with a crime wave involving murders, missing persons, a hostage stand-off, an attempted rape, a kidnapping and various other mayhem. Rehder creates a colorful cast of characters including a gangster in the witness protection program and his idiot son, environmental activists, a sad-sack federal marshal, an overwhelmed Sheriff, and a pile of clueless local rednecks, including "brush removal specialists" Red and Billy-Don. The novel is persistently entertaining and often hilarious. One of my favorite examples of the dry humor that permeates the story is redneck Billy-Don’s running fascination with figuring out why the newer brush clearing machine he uses is called the “Brush Buster 3000" instead of the older “Brush Buster 2000". What is 1000 better about the new machine? Billy-Don finds the answer to this pressing issue in a most unexpected fashion.
I highly recommend Bone Dry to anybody that is a fan of humorous crime novels in the style of Leonard and Hiassen. Bone Dry provided a good break from the more traditional hardboiled crime novels I spend most of my time with. I will definitely be taking a look at Rehder’s other Blanco County crime novels.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

"My Gun Is Quick”
The 1957 Film

My Gun Is Quick was the third film to be based upon a Mickey Spillane novel, following two years after Kiss Me Deadly. Although not the equal of Kiss Me Deadly (see review), My Gun Is Quick is a competent noir thriller, with some outstanding scenes.

Like the novel, the film begins with Mike Hammer meeting the prostitute “Red” in a dingy “hash joint” and, after a few minutes conversation, offering her some cash that she can use to leave the business and go home. Once again, Red is killed in a “car accident” and Hammer is off to the races.

Robert Bray does a good job as Hammer. I would say that he is neither as mean nor as sophisticated and refined as the Hammer portrayed by Ralph Meeker in Kiss Me Deadly. Bray effectuates a disheveled and hard-charging Hammer, leaving in place the unremitting sense of justice that drives Hammer in the Spillane novels. Some have said that Bray’s portrayal is as close as you get to the Hammer of the novels. I think Bray’s Hammer is pretty close to Spillane’s, but he is a bit too congenial and way too willing to allow the cops to dispense justice instead of his 45.

This may be a function of the story being toned down for the film.

Whitney Blake plays an attractive and well-acted femme fatal. (She is the mother of Meredith Baxter, Alex P. Keaton’s mom on Family Ties). The other roles are also pretty well played.

Overall the film suffers a bit from some slow pacing and a “softening up” of the storyline. I have only read about 1/3rd of the novel, so I am not yet familiar with all of the storyline differences between the novel and the film. I’m pretty sure that the bad guys in the novel were not French gangsters, who always wear cheesy striped sailor shirts. If I recall correctly, the novel is more focused on a high class prostitution ring and corrupt socialites and politicians. I can also make a pretty good guess that Hammer doesn’t just turn the arch-villain over to the cops at the end.

The filmmakers did do a great job with their set design, taking advantage of the Los Angeles setting. The apartments of the prostitutes are unflinchingly seedy and Whitney Blake’s home is almost as sheik as Hammer’s apartment in Kiss Me Deadly. Instead of working his way through the concrete jungle of New York, Hammer must work his way through what was already a maze of freeways in L.A. (I was actually amazed at the size L.A.’s freeways had grown to by ‘57). Although palm trees are occasionally seen, much of the action takes place with dreary back drops of oil rigs, junkyards and docks.

This film is definitely worth a look for dedicated fans of the genre. More casual fans may have a hard time sitting through some of the film's slower moments.

By the way, here is a great little article on Spillane by Max Allan Collins. Collins, who writes some very good novels himself, helped with Hard Case Crime’s posthumous publication of Spillane’s Dead Street.

Monday, February 16, 2009

"Gun Work" by David J. Schow

Barney is an ex-soldier that prides himself on “living off the grid.” He works at a gun range in L.A. and occasionally helps people with the kinds of problems that require discretion and skill with an iron. One night Barney gets a desperate call from an old war buddy, Carl Ledbetter. Carl hurriedly describes that he is in Mexico City, that his wife has been kidnaped, that a million dollar ransom is demanded and that, of course, he needs Barney’s help. Barney reluctantly agrees to ride the rescue. After all, Carl had saved his bacon in Iraq. Barney grabs one of his ready and waiting identity packages and heads for Mexico.

In Mexico a kidnaping happens every 6 hours on average and Mexico is second only to Colombia in the total annual number of kidnapings. In Mexico, these abductions are a business and they are treated as a business transaction. The authorities are not called and do not help. More often than not, the ransom is paid and the victim is returned. Of course this reality has spawned a billion-dollar industry for private security firms.

Schow uses the fascinating world of a Mexican kidnaping ring as a backdrop for a rousing tale of revenge. Gun Work reminds me of those classic westerns where a gunslinger left for dead by his enemies manages to slowly recover, teaches himself to shoot again and then slowly plots his revenge. If Gun Work became a film, the role of Barney would demand Eastwood, and at some point he would send a message to the bad guys: “Tell em I’m coming, and hell’s coming with me!”

Since Schow’s protagonist is a gunslinger, there is a great deal of detail built into the story about the tools of the trade. Any firearm fanboy will appreciate Schow’s proficiency with both hardware and tactics.

“Among his many friends are a special group found in the back of his workshop; his closest and most intimate friends, gathered there on the table. You probably already know their names, too: Remington, Ruger, Browning, Beretta, Kimber, Colt, Smith, Wesson, SIG.”

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Hard Case Crime's Lawrence Block Collection

Lawrence Block is a Mystery Writers of American Grand Master. He is most well known for his two long-running series about private investigator Matthew Scudder and burglar Bernie Rhodenbarr. Block’s career began in the late 50s and he has published more than 50 novels.

Hard Case Crime has published more Block novels than those of any other author. They have done so by repackaging and republishing five of Block’s obscure early novels. Some of these novels were originally published by the somewhat lesser known, or lower tier, pulp houses and some were packaged as sleaze novels rather than the excellent crime/pulp tales that they really are. While these works may have been known to completist Block fans and paperback collectors, to most people they are truly lost classics.

The novels range in tone and subject from tales of grifters and their tangled webs, to darker tales of crime and a thriller about the corruption of power. Although not preachy or overly explicit, Block built into these novels wider commentary on topics including the beat generation, the false facade of suburban life and the Cuban revolution.

Rather than review each novel in-depth, I provide a short look at each book’s history and a very brief summary of the plot and setting. I highly recommend each of them. Although Hard Case Crime itself may or may not have all of them in stock, they are all widely available from common sources. The Girl With the Long Green Heart and Lucky At Cards are simply great entertainment and are two of my favorites among the entire Hard Case Crime catalog. A Diet of Treacle stands out as an unusual and sophisticated work.

Grifter’s Game

Grifter’s Game was the first novel published by Hard Case Crime. It originally was published in 1961 as Mona by Gold Medal Books. Joe Marlin is a grifter that moves from town to town when things begin to catch up with him. He meets a dame called Mona on the beach in Atlantic City. They concoct that classic plan - they will kill Mona’s rich husband, take the cash and live happily ever after. Things, of course, do not happen as planned and the story twists its way to a surprisingly unusual and dark ending.

The Girl With the Long Green Heart

This novel originally was published in 1965 by Gold Medal Books. It is the story of two con-men out to scam businessman Wallace Gunderman using a land purchase fraud. They eventually involve Gunderman’s secretary Evvie, who has her own motivations to hurt Gunderman. The grifters go to great lengths to set up their scam and win the confidence of Gunderman. Block gives us a comprehensive overview of their methods. He also lets us in on the self-reflections of one of the grifters, Hayden, as he day-dreams about going straight and living a simple life. Hayden’s dilemma presents that classic pulp theme: Can a bad guy go straight? Can the downward spiral be escaped or is self-destruction assured? This is my favorite of the Hard Case Crime Block novels.

Lucky at Cards

Lucky at Cards first was published in 1964 by Beacon and was stupidly titled The Sex Shuffle, being packaged as a sleaze novel. This one also is a tale of a con-man, of the card sharp variety this time. While fleeing from the mob, Bill Maynard stops in some ordinary town to have a dental problem resolved. The dentist invites him to his weekly poker game and Maynard is off to the races. The dentist’s wife enters the picture as the femme fatal and immediately pulls Maynard into hell. After a taste of suburban life, the con man wonders if he can go straight and live life on the up and up with a job, a wife and a nice little house.

A Diet of Treacle

Originally published as Pads Are for Passion by Beacon in 1961, this novel breaks from the previous three grifter-centric novels with a highly original take on the beat culture in New York’s Greenwich Village of the time. Three hipsters who are think they are living “independent of the outdated and oppressive mainstream society, man” get caught up in the drug trade to dire results.

Killing Castro

This one originally was published by Monarch in their “non-fiction” line as Fidel Castro Assassinated in 1961. It tells the tale of a group of men who set off on a mission to assassinate Fidel. A thriller in which Block provides interesting comment on the corruption of achieving a goal at any cost.