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.