Thursday, July 29, 2010

"Satan Is A Woman" by Gil Brewer

 Gold Medal No. 169, 1951
   Satan Is a Woman was Brewer’s first title for Gold Medal and he was writing in top form.  Brewer’s best novels are based upon a similar motif - the lead character’s blind obsession with a rotten but irresistible woman.  In Satan Is a Woman, this motif is set against a background and sub-plot that is actually quite compelling and adds a richness that some of Brewer’s similar stories lack.  At its core, Satan Is a Woman is actually a story about two brothers and their attempts to save each other from themselves.

    The story begins with Tad Cole hiding out in his brother Larry’s beach cottage.  Tad is wanted for killing two men.   Larry owns a bar right on the beach, steps away from his cottage.  He makes a decent living and knows he should be content but he can’t escape the feeling that something is missing, he is lonely.  More than anything, however, he wants to help Tad get free from his crimes and start over.  As the police being to narrow their search for Tad around Larry’s beach cottage, Tad decides he will turn himself in and avoid implicating Larry in his crimes.  Tad has a long history of trying to keep Larry from following in his footsteps.  Perhaps the most important piece of advice Tad ever gave to Larry was to avoid fast women and “stick to the beer and pretzels type.” 

    After Tad turns himself in Larry vows to do whatever it takes to find Tad a good lawyer and help him get out of prison.  Enter Joan, a beautiful blond who breezes into Larry’s bar.  “She was everything I’d wanted. Everything. She was the dream, the last word, the hope. She was it.”

    Joan has rented a beach cottage next to Larry’s and the two quickly strike up a relationship.  It’s obvious to Larry from nearly the beginning that something about Joan isn’t right, but he is instantly and hopelessly captivated by her.  Brewer is great at incorporating symbolism of his characters' fates into his stories.  As Larry and Joan take their first swim together:

“Hands circled my ankles and gripped.  I went down, pulled down, knowing Joan was pulling and never realizing a woman had such strength. Down and down. I hadn’t had a chance to get my breath. I was dizzy. Still dizzy. Down, down, down. We were on the bottom.”

    The story unfolds with Larry alternately obsessing over Joan and attempting to refocus on his quest to free Tad.  As time passes it becomes more and more clear to Larry that Joan is a rotten egg, if not completely deranged.  Yet the more apparent Joan’s nature becomes apparent the worse Larry is enthralled by her.  Brewer allows the story to develop at just the right pace as we see Larry’s self-destruction begin as a seed planted by Joan which slowly grows and envelops him in a seemingly inescapable prison of obsession. Joan insists that Larry could never provide them with the life they need and deserve with his simple income from the bar.  Slowly but surely she pulls Larry onto the same path that Tad so desperately had kept Larry away from.  Larry tries to fight it, but finds himself unable to resist because of his overwhelming desire for her. 

“But all the time I kept feeling worse.  Because it was like returning to some hellish dream. My desire for Joan seemed to mount all the time, instead of decreasing.  Her leg would touch mine, and I’d want her. I’d want her from the sound of her voice, with my back turned. From the touch of her hand. From the smell of her. I would have wanted her just seeing her shoes sitting on the floor, maybe. But being with her meant all the rest of the hell. With more of it to come. And if I touched her . . . ."

    While trying to find a lawyer to help Tad, Larry meets a legal secretary, whom Brewer cleverly monikers Grace.  She is a beautiful but simple woman that takes pity on, and a liking to, Larry. One night Larry realizes where Joan is leading him and makes a break for it, running away and falling into a nightmarish drunken odyssey, from which Grace saves him.  By this point, however, it is too late.  In another piece of symbolism Joan and a policeman come and find Larry and pull him back into their world - the real world of crime and punishment in which grace does not exist.  Joan immediately whisks Larry back into her dirty business and within her hellish thrall.

“Her lips were fierce, her tongue lashed like a flame itself, and there was no gentleness, only a wire-tight hunger; a vivid, savage want. And through it all, even against the closed lids of my eyes, I could see the red demonic flickerings of the fire out there in the dump.”

      At the novel’s finale Joan is revealed in all of her evil majesty and Larry finally and fully realizes his folly. 

“Joan . . . I couldn’t believe what I saw and heard. It couldn’t be Joan. Yet, it was. Her face was a contorted mask, her once golden hair lank and dark against her head. I seemed to actually feel it. All the evil in the world radiated from her face, and the way she held her shapely body, a thing of twisted angles.”

    The ending of Satan Is a Woman manages to be surprising, satisfying and, dare I say, even a bit touching.  It ranks among Brewer’s best pieces of work.

Friday, July 23, 2010

"The Big Bang" by Mickey Spillane & Max Allan Collins

I listen to a lot of audiobooks and I was very happy to recently run across the audiobook version of The Big Bang at my local library.  The novel is excellently performed by Stacy Keach.  Listening to him made me really want to check out the old Hammer tv show, starring Keach.  He has just the right amount of tough guy growl for Mike Hammer and does a pretty good job characterizing the other players in the book. 

The Big Bang has been reviewed a million times all over the web so I’ll avoid the usual background about the origins of the novel.  I must, however, comment that Collins’ work on the novel was just excellent.  It felt like 100% Spillane to me from start to finish.  If anything, Collins brings a welcome tightening of the writing and pace of the story.  One of my only criticisms of Spillane’s original Hammer novels is that they can be slow in spots and the writing is, at times, rather clunky.  Doesn’t matter to me though because I don’t read Spillane hoping for the artistry of Chandler.  I read it because Mike Hammer and the instant justice dispensed by his .45 are a breath of fresh air. 

Why do I say that?  Not because I’m an advocate of vigilante justice in real life or because I think that society should regress and re-adopt those bad aspects of our culture which have been thankfully shed since the 50s and 60s.  Rather, I’ll go on record saying that I think the feminization of society is, on the whole, a bad thing and that there still should be a place in today’s world for a man’s man, both in real life and in entertainment.  James Bond, Dirty Harry, Mike Hammer – gone.  Replaced by emotionally conflicted action heroes like Jason Bourne or, worse, with sensitive and smartly dressed vampires that prefer to romance the ladies rather than drink their blood.  Will the world survive when Clint Eastwood dies?  I’m not so sure. Maybe Ted Nugent will keep things on track.

Anyway, back to The Big Bang.  It’s a classic Hammer tale involving drugs, dames, mafiosos and wanna-be criminal masterminds.  The plot is simple with the usual interview type scenes spliced with the occasional eruption of violence.  And boy, does it erupt.  The most interesting part of the story, to me, is that the scheme Hammer ultimately reveals forces him into making a difficult and disturbing decision.  Is there a grey area for Mike Hammer?  How far would he go to fight the ever increasing scourge of drugs?  At what point does the end no longer justify the means?  The ending of the Big Bang may have been meant to answer those questions, but I prefer to think of it as being somewhat ambiguous as to Hammer’s ultimate decisions.  Does this mean that I’m not actually committed to the Hammer vision, but prefer my action heroes to be the conflicted type?  Well, I hope not. I do know that all those metrosexuals out there would benefit from throwing in a copy of The Big Bang audiobook instead of the latest Jack Johnson cd.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

"Guilty Bystander" by Wade Miller

Signet No. 1089

The room wouldn’t stay still. It kept swinging in slow, creaking circles like a carousel running down. He was lost in a fog - a hot, sticky fog. A voice echoed down an empty street toward him, calling his name. Georgia’s voice. He waited for it to fade away as it always did.

So begins Guilty Bystander as Max Thursday is awoken from a drunken stupor by his ex-wife Georgia.  Thursday is in the room of the seedy hotel at which he works as a house detective for room and board.  The bottle has cost him nearly everything and he doesn’t seem to care.  Georgia comes to Max in hysterics, having found her son and her new husband missing. She asks her ex for his help, even while half suspecting that he might be involved.

The kidnapping of his son, and some prodding from Georgia, motivate Max enough to sober up and start an investigation.  The hunt takes him all over San Diego, from the bowels of a cargo ship to a crime ridden National City neighborhood.  Max manages to work his way through a complex criminal conspiracy involving mafiosos, some grisly shotgun murders, a trashy femme fatal and a fortune in stolen pearls.  The second half of the novel is fast paced with some great shootouts and a pretty decent surprise ending.  I really enjoyed the San Diego setting, nice change from N.Y. or L.A., especially if you are somewhat familiar with the locations discussed in the book.

I have previously read a couple of Miller novels and I can state without reservation their writing is a step above your typical pulp.  The Thursday series is considered by many to be an excellent but under appreciated body of work, perhaps even ranking up there with the likes of Chandler and Hammett.  I certainly found Guilty Bystander to be a good read, but I’m not ready to proclaim Thursday to be the second coming of Marlowe or Spade. Thursday himself certainly represents a realistic, if not entirely sympathetic or engaging, private investigator.  I have read comments bemoaning Thursdays anonymity in the face of Mike Hammer’s popularity.  Thursday deserves more attention, but not at the expense of Hammer.

Guilty Bystander is good hard boiled stuff, but I don't know that it ranks with the best.  For example, Lt. Austin Clapp, Thursday’s best, and perhaps only friend, speechifies to Georgia:

Mrs. Mace, I’m tired of hearing about innocent bystanders.  From where I stand every John Doe in this town is responsible for a killer. Killers are made, not born - and who’s responsible?  The public or society or whatever you want to call it.  As long as things like this happen there is no such thing as an innocent bystander.  And that includes you - and me.”

A hard-boiled sentiment from a world-weary homicide detective, but one that’s actually pretty stupid considering the nature of the bad guys and the child victim in Guilty Bystander.  If Thursday’s little boy was something other than an innocent bystander or if society was guilty of creating the novel’s various scumbags, I wasn’t convinced.  Nothing in Guilty Bystander resonated for me at anywhere near the level of many of the better hard-boiled bits from Spillane - like Hammer’s revenge vow in the first few pages of I The Jury.

At any rate, Thursday is not supposed to be an avenging angel tough guy, but more of a tragic noir figure that may or may not save the day. Guilty Bystander is certainly a solid entry among classic pulp P.I. novels, if not quite qualifying as the cream of the crop.  I look forward to exploring Thursday’s further misadventures.