Sunday, November 15, 2020

"The Eagle and the Hawk" (1933)

The Eagle and the Hawk (1933) is a Pre-Code anti-war film from Paramount that focuses on the rivalry between two RAF soldiers stationed in France during World War I, Jerry Young (Fredric March) and Henry Crocker (Cary Grant). Crocker is acknowledged as the best gunner in the squad, but he aspires to be a pilot. Young, however, advises the captain the Crocker isn't good enough to be a pilot. Their conflict escalates when Crocker tries to gun down German observers that parachuting out of a burning plane, which Young sees as savage and immoral and which Crocker views as justified by the nature of war. Young's humanist philosophy increases as the death toll rises and he questions the very nature of valor, bravery, and heroism. An unsung classic, The Eagle and the Hawk deserves to be mentioned alongside other anti-war films of the time like All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), and Kino Lorber Studio Classics have recently resurrected the film with a pristine and beautiful Blu-ray presentation.

Saturday, November 14, 2020

"The Sign of the Cross" (1932)

If you can't see The Sign of the Cross (1932) on the big screen, the next best thing is the new Kino Lorber Studio Classics Blu-ray, in which every lavish detail of Cecil B. DeMille's super-production is shimming in high-def detail. High visual quality is especially important for a director like DeMille who poured every dollar into his shots. If the audience couldn't see it, then it wasn't big enough for DeMille, a director who never did anything small. Born from and for the big screen, he sought to make his movies bigger than anything ever done before. Never one for subtlety, he envisioned spectacles and protagonists larger than the lives and worlds of the spectators in the theater. The Sign of the Cross is perfectly emblematic of DeMille's vision: the drama might be overwrought to the point of corn, but the production design and depictions of Roman debauchery and decadence are unarguably incredible.

Friday, November 13, 2020

"Picture Mommy Dead" (1966)

Kino Lorber Studio Classics's new Blu-ray of Picture Mommy Dead (1966) is a wonderful tribute to its producer and director, the legendary independent filmmaker Bert I. Gordon, who recently celebrated his 98th birthday on September 24th, and whose career spanned over six decades. Dubbed "Mr. B.I.G." by Forrest J. Ackerman both for his initials and his frequent use of XL-sized monsters, Gordon made his mark with a series of low-budget sci-fi pictures including The Cyclops (1957), The Amazing Colossal Man (1957), and Earth vs. the Spider (1958). Gordon's career continued into the 70s including Food of the Gods (1976), and his most recent film was Secrets of a Psychopath (2015).  Picture Mommy Dead features no larger-than-life monsters (though it does take place in a large mansion), however the film displays the director's flair for economical thrills and a cheap but effective sense of style.

Friday, November 6, 2020

"If the Coffin Fits" by Day Keene (1952) - FFB

If the Coffin Fits (1952) was Keene's eighth novel since his debut, Framed in Guilt, was published three years earlier in 1949. The title is borrowed from a pulp story he wrote for Dime Mystery (March 1945), but the stories have nothing in common (the original yarn is about a writer who debunks occult phenomena). The protagonist of this novel is another throwback to his pulp days, private eye Tom Doyle, who appeared in numerous yarns in the 1940s; this is Doyle's only outing in a novel. Here, Doyle gets caught up in a war for political control of a corrupt Nevada gambling town.

Keene's choice of reviving Doyle during his paperback period is really interesting, as Keene's novels tended to focus on average joes who, through extraordinary circumstances, have to prove that they or their spouse is innocent of murder. Considering the popularity of private eyes in paperback fiction at the time, perhaps Keene was hoping a publisher would latch onto the character for a series. Doyle's description as a World War II vet with premature white hair and blue eyes, in fact, reminds of another popular series private eye of the time: Richard Prather's Shell Scott. Scott's white hair and blue eyes graced the cover of scores of Gold Medal paperbacks in the 1950s (and beyond). The similarities stop there, however, as Keene's prose is decidedly less animated than Prather's.

The plot of If the Coffin Fits is certainly more routine than Keene's typical work from this period, hitting all the expected beats and twists one would expect from a 50s detective novel; however, it still exhibits Keene's commitment to action-oriented puzzle plots and pedal-to-the-metal pacing.

In If the Coffin Fits, Chicago private eye Tom Doyle is visited by an old army buddy, Tiny Anderson, who now runs a successful casino in Central City, Nevada. Anderson offers Doyle $5000 to fly to Central City, wait in front of a public monument at midnight, and get into a car to hear a proposal. If he doesn't like what he hears, he can walk away. For that kind of money, and a trusted friend, Doyle takes the case. But from the moment he lands in Central City, he knows there is more to the case than he was told. Local goons are waiting at the airport to persuade him—with their fists—to turn around. Doyle seems to have found himself caught in a grab for political control of the town, between one party who wants to reform and clean it up and another that wants to keep it wide open and corrupt. And everything seems to be related to James Burton, a young aspiring lawyer, who has been accused of murdering his high-school aged babysitter, who was pregnant with his alleged child, and is set to be executed in a couple days. And it's up to Doyle to save Burton, avoid the cops, outrun the goons, and help a stray college student (Fay Adams) who is unknowingly caught up in all of this.

Bill Crider was right when he said, "The story is a lot more complicated than I can describe here, but it's a lot of fun. If you like the old-fashioned pulp-styled p.i. stories, you'd find a lot to like here. I know I did."

Even by Keene's standards, there's a lot of plot here—almost more than can fit in the book. Perhaps because the main character is outside of the conflict and not directly involved, the story feels more rote and detached than Keene's other books. There's something very pedestrian about the trail of evidence and the pile-up of obstacles in Doyle's way in If the Coffin Fits, as though Keene is amassing incident-after-incident in order to prolong the conclusion until a word-count is hit. The story does, however, display's Keene's classical sense of deduction, preferring to have his character use his intellect rather than his fists to piece the puzzle together. Not that there's any lack of action—If the Coffin Fits is slam-bang all the way—but Keene separates the violence from the logic of the story. Keene doesn't offer any easy outs for his protagonist: he makes Doyle work for the clues and think about what they mean.

One facet of Keene's writing that has become more apparent and fascinating the more I read him is the sense of restraint in his prose. He's hardboiled through-and-through, but he doesn't indulge in graphic depictions of violence or lurid passage of sex and lust. Often, as in If the Coffin Fits, his protagonists are  too busy running around to sleep with anybody—they rarely get any sleep themselves, unless they are knocked unconscious. Violence is also exhibited only in self-defense, and even then Keene's writing is economical and to-the-point, using as few words as possible to paint a mental image before getting on with the plot. Which is really what Keene is about—the plot. His pacing is unmatched, and for all of the intricate plotting he keeps things crystal clear and manages to tie everything up in the end, often in a whirlwind final few paragraphs.

If the Coffin Fits isn't one of Keene's greatest books, but it's damned entertaining, nonetheless. And that's something for which he can always be counted on.

Wednesday, November 4, 2020

"The Case of the Bearded Bride: Day Keene in the Detective Pulps, Vol. #4" (2013) - Short Story Wednesday

Ramble House's The Case of the Bearded Bride: Day Keene in the Detective Pulps, Vol. #4 was edited and introduced by scholar David Laurence Wilson. The selection reflects the depth and comprehensiveness of his research, comprising Keene's earliest stories under his real name, Gunard Hjertstedt, as well as several from the 1940s under the pen name "John Corbett." None of these tales were the sorts of novelettes that would get their titles printed in large, sweeping, bold red text on the front covers of magazines. Instead, these stories represent two different stages of Keene's career as a writer. The Hjertstedt stories are when he was still developing a voice, written in the 1930s while he was still mainly producing radio dramas for broadcast. The Corbett stories, on the other hand, were pseudonymous works meant to fill out the pages of issues where a story under his real name was given more prominence. It's a fascinating combination that focuses on the more obscured and less visible aspects of Keene's output, but that sort of attention to detail is what I value and appreciate from Wilson.

Monday, November 2, 2020

"Kings of Midnight" by Wallace Stroby (2012)

Kings of Midnight (2012) kicks off with a heist destined for the Hall of Fame. The setup may be simple—knocking over an ATM with a tractor, followed by a fast getaway into the woods—but the scene's power lies in Wallace Stroby's uncannily exact imagery, precise language, and narrative credibility. Stroby's depiction of heists is so believable you almost wonder if writing is just a sideline for him. The scene recalls those meticulously choreographed centerpieces from films like Jules Dassin's Rififi (1955) and Hubert Cornfield's Plunder Road (1957), in which minute details of movement are amplified to anxiety-inducing extremes. So much tension, but so little happening. Economy of language has been a key element of crime fiction since the days of Dashiell Hammett, but Stroby makes it feels fresh and vital again. He doesn't rely on hardboiled clichés or tough guy lingo. Kings of Midnight is, in large part, a quiet book when it comes to dialogue. The attitude is all in the action—and here, actions speaks louder than words.

Friday, October 30, 2020

"Mrs. Homicide" by Day Keene (1953) (FFB)

Day Keene's books for Gold Medal and Lion are some of his most ambitious offerings—larger in scope, atmosphere, setting, plot, as well as experiments and deviations from his style. His books for Ace and Graphic were more blunt, straightforward, a little more crude, less polished, sometimes more graphic in their depictions of sex and violence. They're more repetitive, formulaic, recycled. In this sense, the Ace and Graphic books are somewhat more representative of Keene. His 1953 Ace paperback original, Mrs. Homicide, is a classic example of the author's style.

Connie Stone, wife of New York City Cop Herman Stone, wakes up naked in bed next to a dead man she claims to have never seen before. Witnesses, however, say they have seen her with the man, a blackmailer named Lyle Cary, at his apartment, as well as in bars around the city. Some of Herman's co-workers even saw them together. They tell him that all women are alike, and that he should get drunk, have a weekend fling, and forget about his wife. He tries that—but he wants to believe her, so he starts asking questions around town, from Greenwich Village to 52nd Street's Swing Alley. Just when he thinks he has found the answer, someone saps him on the head, and he wakes up next to a corpse. Just like his wife did. Now the cops are after him, and he knows that Connie was framed, but in order to prove her innocence he'll first have to prove his own.

Wednesday, October 28, 2020

"Death March of the Dancing Dolls and Other Stories, Day Keene in the Detective Pulps, Vol. #3" (2010) - Short Story Wednesday

Ramble House's Death March of the Dancing Dolls and Other Stories, Day Keene in the Detective Pulps, Vol. #3 (2010) starts off with an introduction by the late Bill Crider, a superb writer and generous soul whose enthusiasm for old pulps and paperback novels was as infectious as it was enlightening. For me, this introduction had extra special meaning because Crider's blog posts were some of the earliest writings that I encountered about Keene. Reading his words brought a smile to my face, and recalled memories of reading about Keene on his fabulous blog.

Among the selections here are two stories with Keene's series character Doc Egg, a former pugilist who has hung up his gloves in order to open a Times Square pharmacy. From his counter at the Crossroads of the World, Doc crosses paths with plenty of characters, and invariably plenty of mysteries cross his path that he is compelled to solve, either to save his own hide or to help the NYPD. Keene describes Doc Egg as "a bright-eyed, bald little man in his late thirties with the suspicion of a paunch . . . reputedly worth a million dollars." An amiable fellow to his friends, always willing to loan a buck when he can, "he never forgot a favor or forgave a slight. If he couldn't whip a bully with his fists, e used whatever was handy. He and Lieutenant Dan Carter of the Times Square Homicide Detail had been friends since they had been boys." Not everyone on the police force likes Doc, however, and he usually has to outwit an officer who is trying to pin the crime on him.

Friday, October 23, 2020

"Dead Man's Tide" by Day Keene (1953) - FFB

Day Keene's It's a Sin to Kill was one of the first books I reviewed here on Pulp Sereade, my fourth ever post. I still remember finding the 1958 Avon paperback in a cardboard box underneath the counter at Spoonbill and Sugartown bookstore in Brooklyn. 12 years later, I finally have a true first edition of the book under its original title, Dead Man's Tide, published by Graphic under the pseudonym "William Richards." Revisiting the book, I found it to be even better than I remembered.

Keene knew how to hook a reader fast by getting right to the story, and Dead Man's Tide is perhaps the fastest of them all. First sentence and he's already describing a nude corpse floating through the Gulf of Mexico, passing by schools of porpoises, then landing on a sand bar where crabs gather around it. It's macabre, grotesque, strangely erotic, and even more strangely serene. It's an elegantly written passage, among the most evocative and vivid that Keene ever penned. Keene then takes readers to a familiar set up: a man wakes up to murder and must go on the run in order to prove himself innocent.

Wednesday, October 21, 2020

"We Are the Dead: Day Keene in the Detective Pulps, Vol. 2" (2010) - Short Story Wednesday

We Are the Dead is Ramble House's second volume of Day Keene's pulp fiction. This volume is particularly special because of its introduction by the late Ed Gorman, one of my favorite novelists. Ed was also an incredible critic and historian, and he had the remarkable ability to discuss literature in a way that was profound and insightful without being overly complicated. I have re-read his intro three or four times, and it has that particular cadence that all of his writing has, an ineffable and invisible quality but which is always present. It's a voice that is unmistakably his own. I would have treasured this volume for his intro alone, but the stories are quite remarkable too, and the combination of them makes this an impressive volume all around.

Three of Keene's series characters appear here. The former pugilist-turned-pharmacist Doc Egg is represented by "We Are the Dead" and "If the Coffin Fits," which are great representations of the Dime Mystery-style of pulp story that Keene excelled in writing. What begin as a supernatural ghost stories are eventually revealed to be not supernatural at all. The design appealed to some of Keene's best qualities as a writer, a knack for strong, vivid opening scenes, as well as his gift for nightmarish logic and endurance tests for his characters. Private eye Matt Mercer appears in "Thirteen Must Die!" and police officer Herman "The Great" Stone appears in "The Corpse They Couldn't Kill."

Tuesday, October 20, 2020

"Rattlesnake Rodeo" by Nick Kolakowski (2020)

Nick Kolakowski's Rattlesnake Rodeo (2020) kick-starts like the recoil of a shotgun, picking up immediately after the ending of Boise Longpig Hunting Club. Bounty hunter Jake Halligan, his ex- and future-wife Janine, and his dark-web arms-dealer sister Frankie, are on the run. When we last saw them in the previous book, they had been abducted by a group of rich hunters and managed to escape, leaving behind them an abandoned town in flames and a trail of dead bodies, many of whom were influential politicians and businessmen. It was only a matter of time before someone—either the police or an associate of the deceased—would find them, and neither way would end well for our protagonists.

"We were dead. Although I didn’t want to say it out loud, I knew that our life expectancy had almost certainly dropped to zero, no matter what we did or where we went. When you carbonize a group of millionaires, politicians, and millionaire-politicians, the law never stops hunting you, and they make sure you’ll never have the chance to say something embarrassing at trial."

Monday, October 19, 2020

Razorback by Peter Brennan (1981)

Chris Stachiw was kind enough to invite me to join him and screenwriter/producer Richard Hatem on The Kulturecast to discuss the 1984 Australian film Razorback. In preparation for the podcast, I decided to read the source material. The decision was totally mine, so I have no one to blame but myself. And while I can't say I enjoyed the book, I had a great time discussing the movie and book with Chris and Richard, so many thanks to them for a wonderful conversation. Hope to talk movie with them again soon!

Razorback (1981) is the second novel by Peter Brennan, who first novel was a tennis thriller called Sudden Death (1978). While the movie is a Jaws—esque story of a vicious animal terrorizing a community, the book is a beast of a different sort—a giant 378-page bloated mess.

The novel begins with a promising introduction about a kangaroo and her baby taking its first steps, a pregnant ewe, and a monstrous wild boar who has been driven to cannibalism by drought and lack of food. Unfortunately, after the promising introduction of the titular killer boar, the novel derails itself almost immediately. What begins as an eco thriller-horror novel dissolves into a missing persons-smuggling soap opera with too many competing story lines, too many uninteresting characters, and not enough wild boar action.

Saturday, October 17, 2020

"Boise Longpig Hunting Club" by Nick Kolakowski (2018)

Some thrillers work by introducing the problem early and spend the rest of the book showing the characters to get out of a jam. Nick Kolakowski takes the opposite approach with Boise Longpig Hunting Club (2018): a slow burn to a fiery, explosive climax. Kolawkoski writers character-driven, high-action noir. He builds his story from the characters up, giving us a sense of who they are, the world they've built for themselves, and—most importantly—what they're capable of, before throwing them headfirst into a nightmare that none of them could have planned for. And these are characters that keep heavy firepower close at hand at all times, so if they couldn't see it coming, you know they're in store for something twisted and terrifying.

Jake Halligan is a bounty hunter and Iraq War vet living in Idaho with his ex- and future-wife Janine and their daughter. Jake's sister, Frankie, is a dark web illegal arms dealer who the police and FBI would love to throw behind bars, if they could find her, especially after she helped Jake dispense with some meth heads who robbed him by blowing them sky high with a rocket launcher. And lately the local cops have been giving Jake a hard time, since they know he's Frankie's brother.

Friday, October 16, 2020

"Strange Witness" by Day Keene (1953) FFB

Day Keene's Strange Witness was originally published by Graphic in 1953, the third of five novels he would write for the short-lived paperback house. The story is a variation on the archetypal Keene plot about a wrongly-accused man dodging cops and gangsters in order to prove his innocence, and told with the author's usual full-tilt pacing with a couple twists thrown in to surprise even his most devoted fans.

Hart Jackson used to have a successful career as an emcee and ventriloquist. Then he took the fall for his brother, who was set up for the murder of Helene, a singer at a nightclub. After serving 7 years of a 20-year sentence, he's out on parole—and he wants revenge against Flip Evans, the club owner who put the frame in place. After hocking his watch for a gun, Hart goes to a bar, where he is approached by blonde woman he's never seen before who says her name is Thelma Winston, she wants to marry him, and will give him $10,000 plus evidence to put Evans behind bars. But as soon as they are married, Thelma is gunned down. The cops want Jackson for murder, and the gangsters want to know what Thelma told him. Her dying words were something about Olga and a hotel room—but Jackson doesn't know what they mean, only that his life and proving his innocence depends on it.

Wednesday, October 14, 2020

"League of the Grateful Dead and Other Stories" by Day Keene (2010) - Short Story Wednesday

Editor John Pelan and publisher Ramble House have set out to restore the long obscured history of Day Keene in the pulps, embarking on a multi-volume series inspired by Dennis McMillan's amazing Fredric Brown pulp series. The first volume in their Day Keene in the Detective Pulps series is League of the Grateful Dead and Other Stories. Released in 2010, it gathers eight tales and an insightful introduction by Pelan.

The eight stories in League of the Grateful Dead show classic crime pulp at its finest. Tough-as-nails private eyes navigating twisty (and twisted) capers, engaging in blazing shootouts with ruthless gangsters, and trying to keep their necks out of jail—all while making it home for supper without compromising their wedding vows. They're paced so quickly that it's nearly impossible to keep up or follow all the clues—but it's sure fun trying. While the private eye cases are fabulous and most indicative of Keene's characteristic style, my favorite was actually "Nothing to Worry About," a vicious quickie tale about a husband's plot to murder his wife that features a wicked twist ending.

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