Monday, May 10, 2021

"Ritual in Blood" by Doug Masters (1986)

Ritual of Blood was the sixth English translation of the TNT series to be released in the US. It’s far tamer than the titular first book in the series—much less sex and violence—but also way more confusing and sloppily plotted. There are still some great moments that capture the appeal of the books—extreme action pushed to surreal heights—but, overall, they seem to be lost amidst a barely intelligible narrative. 

TNT—Anthony Nicholas Twin—is a Scottish reporter who, after being exposed to a nuclear blast, has superpowers, such as eyes that can see in the dark, a body that can heal itself, super-sonic hearing, and an inexhaustible erection. In Ritual of Blood, he is on his way to a dinner party when all the guests, including the children, are slaughtered. Meanwhile, the richest men in world have been disappearing shortly after marriage, along with their money. It is believed that a secret female organization, Matrix, is behind the disappearances. TNT teams up with his arch-nemesis, Arnold Benedict, to go undercover as billionaire “John Wayne,” to marry into the organization and get to the bottom of it.

Sunday, May 9, 2021

"Manhunter" by Arnold Hano (1957)

In Arnold Hano’s westerns, the frontier is deceitful above all things, truth is rarely simple, and resolutions never easy. Where other books end—the capture of the killer and the confession—Manhunter begins.

“Ross was no longer vitally interested in Gill. He had his father’s killer, his confessed killer. But Gill could clear up who was lying, and why.

“On the heels of that thought came a terrible doubt, streaking across his brain like a yellow comet. It had all happened so long ago. Maybe it was he—Ben Ross—who was lying.”

Originally released in 1957 under the pseudonym “Matthew Gant” and recently released by Stark House Press (paired with Slade), Manhunter is emblematic of Hano’s strikingly original approach to the western genre. Revenge and closure don't drive his protagonist forward, it’s something darker and all-consuming. These sorts of qualities separate Arnold Hano’s westerns from many of his peers, and what gives them the distinction of being labeled retroactively as “western noir.” 

Saturday, May 8, 2021

"Slade" by Arnold Hano (1956)

There’s nothing heroic or romantic about Arnold Hano’s westerns. The frontier is a dark and violent landscape that doesn’t offer redemption, rebirth, or hope. In Hano’s books, the barren landscapes reveal the naked awfulness of its people. These qualities are on full display in Slade and Manhunter, two of Hano’s grim, gut-punch westerns recently reissued by Stark House Press. These great books embody why Hano deserves the title “Master of the Western Noir,” which is the name of Paul Bishop’s terrific essay-interview with the author, which is also included in the new volume.

Slade was originally published in 1956 under the name “Ad Gordon” by Lion Books, where Hano was also the editor. Hano doesn’t handle his characters with kid gloves—he puts them through hell, over and over again. Slade begins with him knocking the titular character off his high horse, and what a fall he takes. Like Icarus before him, Slade flew too close to the sun and paid for his hubris. Here, the gambler bet everything he had—including his saloon—and lost it. With only his horse, his hat, and a sock with $500 he tries to leave town, but after he’s jumped and beaten unconscious he loses even the sock. “Dilt drove both his fists to the back of Slade’s neck and kicked himself loose. Yet somehow he got up again. Finally, the wild red washed through him and turned gray and the last thing he remembered was Dilt saying hoarsely, ‘Fall, you son of a bitch, fall.’”

Tuesday, May 4, 2021

My new story "Death Drives By Night" is at Beat to a Pulp


I've been a big fan of Beat to a Pulp since I discovered them a little over a decade ago, around the same time I started this blog. Since then, it's been a dream of mine to have a short story included on their website. That dream has finally come true, and I'm thrilled that they've given a home to my story, "Death Drives By Night." It's about a rural veterinarian with a sideline patching up criminals who gets caught in the middle of a drug war when violence follows the trail back to his home. Zakariah Johnson described it as "Gritty, gravel-road-noir."

Click here to read "Death Drives by Night."

Image: Designed by me, photograph "129201-07" by phrenologist is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

Tuesday, April 27, 2021

"Love Like Bleeding Out With An Empty Gun In Your Hand" by Stephen J. Golds (2021)

Nothing ever lasts in Stephen J. Golds’s world—not the good, and not the bad. 

In Golds’s hard-hitting collection of noir-influenced poetry and prose, Love Like Bleeding Out With An Empty Gun In Your Hand, there’s a lot of past, not much present, and even less future. Characters look back and see what’s better left behind; they look around and don’t like what they see; and they look ahead but don’t see much of anything. Yet somehow, Golds manages to be both a romantic and a nihilist at the same time—and that’s as good as definition of noir as I can think of.

Monday, April 26, 2021

Wallace Stroby Interview at CrimeReads


I've long been a fan of Wallace Stroby's crime novels, especially his Crissa Stone series, but his latest is my new favorite. In design, Heaven's a Lie reads like something straight out of Gold Medal from the 1950s, but in feeling and tone it is completely modern, and deeply tied to the present moment. The main character is Joette, a woman who was laid off from her bank teller job when the bank downsized. Now she works a day-shift at a decaying motel during the off-season in order to pay for her trailer and support her dying mother. But that's all backstory you learn later. Stroby kick-starts the action with the first sentence of the book. A car turns over in front of the motel. Joette rushes to help rescue the driver. Inside the open trunk, she sees a bag of cash. She takes it. And, of course, the rightful owner quickly figures out she has it and wants it back. Trouble is, Joette's got nothing left to lose and is determined to keep the cash.

One of Stroby's strongest abilities is character development. He eschews archetype for realistic people made of flesh-and-blood, with urgent and relatable motivations, and who—when pushed—surprise not only those around them, but also themselves. And Heaven's a Lie is a book in which characters frequently surprise themselves. Whether it is Joette recognizing her boldness and recklessness, or Travis—the sadistic drug dealer—acknowledging his limitations and powerlessness, the cast of Heaven's a Lie face life-altering and disturbing self-realizations. 

I loved Heaven's a Lie—a tightly-knit chamber noir filled with melancholy and heartache set against a backdrop of America's struggling economy and the destructive wake of gentrification.

On the occasion of the book's release, Stroby was kind enough to speak with me about the writing process. 

Read the full interview, "Wallace Stroby on Life, Death, and Noir on the Jersey Shore," at CrimeReads.

Monday, March 29, 2021

"TNT" by Doug Masters (Loup Durand and Pierre Rey) (1978/1985)

TNT is a fitting name for a book that blasts the whole Men’s Adventure genre into another stratosphere. A bizarre fusion of James Bond and Maquis de Sade with a nuclear-age twist, TNT follows a rogue reporter who has been turned into a killing and sex machine after being exposed to radiation. The novel’s Sadean digressions into torture and exploitation are so surreal and extreme that it surpasses the boundaries and intentions of most Men’s Adventure novels that I’ve read, and would almost be considered pornographic if not for the ironically restrained prose of the novel, which feels strangely detached and matter-of-fact. As Joe Kenney describes, the writing is “almost puritan in its descriptions: cursing is kept to a minimum, [and] there’s not much gore.” 

Saturday, March 27, 2021

"Later" by Stephen King (2021)

Later, Stephen King’s third crime novel published by Hard Case Crime, is a masterful fusion of melancholic macabre and grim fantasy that recalls past masters of the crime/horror hybrid like Fredric Brown or Joel Townsley Rogers’s The Red Right Hand. There’s also an air of wonderment that permeates the entire novel and which reminds of the crime stories of Ray Bradbury (collected by Hard Case last year). “I thought of asking her if it freaked her out to look up at night and see the stars and know they go on forever and ever, but didn’t bother. I just said no. You get used to marvelous things. You take them for granted. You can try not to, but you do. There’s too much wonder, that’s all. It’s everywhere.” Horror, in Later, can be frightening, but it can also be magical and fantastic. To borrow the title of a Sergio Martino movie, Stephen King explores all the colors of the dark in Later, a playful, gripping novel that’s as moving as it is chilling. 

Friday, March 26, 2021

"High Plains Drifter" (1973)

High Plains Drifter (1973) is a landmark film for Clint Eastwood: his second feature as a director (following the stalker-thriller Play Misty for Me) and his first western as director. Among his darkest works, it’s a surreal, disturbing tale that plays out more like a horror movie than a traditional western. Inspired by the murder of Kitty Genovese (killed in public in 1964 while people looked on), High Plains Drifter is also a sharp critique of how society—and especially cinema—fetishes and romanticizes violence and brutality. Gorgeously filmed by Bruce Surtees, who transforms the western landscape into a blazing hellscape, the full infernal glory and grim beauty of High Plains Drifter is on display in a new Blu-ray from Kino Lorber Studio Classics.

Friday, March 19, 2021

"Bad Moon Rising" by Ed Gorman (2011) - FFB

It's coming up on 5 years since Ed Gorman passed away, and not a day goes by that I don't pass by his books on my shelf and think of him. And while I still have plenty of his nearly 120 books—including novels, novellas, and story collections—to get through, I still miss the thrill of hearing about a new Gorman novel, seeing his latest blog post, or reading one of his introductions to a reprinted classic crime novel. 

The hallmark of Gorman's style is the utter simplicity and clarity of his language. He doesn't go in for hardboiled-isms, procedural jargon, expletive overload, or any other attention-grabbing affectation. Straightforward prose is more than just a stylistic decision; it's the foundation of Gorman's moral universe. His protagonists shun pretensions of any kind—artistic, social, or political. In both style and substance, Gorman's work radiates a profound sense of honesty. His characters can see the worst qualities in others because they've first recognized them in themselves. Among my favorites of his books is the Sam McCain series. First introduced in 1999's The Day the Music Died, McCain is a lawyer and licensed PI in the small town of Black River Falls, Iowa, and one of Gorman's most compassionate and endearing characters.

Sunday, March 14, 2021

"A Death in Mexico" by Jonathan Woods (2012)

Jonathan Woods’s debut novel, A Death in Mexico (New Pulp Press, 2012), is an outrageous and unruly mescal-soaked murder mystery packed with plenty of euphoric and hallucinogenic highs and none of the regrettable aftereffects. Readers looking for a by-the-books police procedural won’t find anything so straight-laced or conservative in this book; adventurous readers—those willing to drink without first asking what’s in the glass—will savor Woods’s unorthodox mélange of sex and slaughter under the sun.

It all begins when a young female corpse is discovered mutilated in the streets of San Miguel de Allende. Leading the investigation is police inspector Hector Diaz, a man prone to indigestion, ill-timed erections, and hallucinations of Aztec gods. After the corpse is identified as Amanda Smallwood, a young model from Texas, the trail leads Diaz to a local community of expatriate American artists that includes a charming convicted child molester, a Canadian diplomat’s wife, and scores of jilted lovers and wannabe artists living Bohemian fantasies with total abandon—any of whom seem desperate, envious, inebriated, or crazy enough to have committed the murder.

Friday, March 12, 2021

"The (Original Adventures) of Ford Fairlane: The Long Lost Rock ’n’ Roll Detective Stories" by Rex Weiner (2018) - FFB

The 1970s witnessed a rebirth of interest in the hardboiled private eye. This new wave of gumshoe scribes paid tribute to their pioneering forebears, like Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, but also modernized the genre and its hero for their own time. Bill Pronzini's Nameless Detective series started in 1971 with The Snatch; Robert B. Parker's first Spenser book, The Godwulf Manuscript, appeared in 1973; James Crumley debuted two beloved series characters, Milo Milodragovitch in The Wrong Case (1975) and C. W. Sughrue in The Last Good Kiss (1978); Lawrence Block launched Matthew Scudder in Sins of the Fathers (1976); and Marcia Muller introduced Sharon McCone in Edwin of the Iron Shoes (1977). The new breed of private eyes was so successful that their influence and popularity—and, in several cases, sequels—continue to this day.

Into this fray rode Rex Weiner’s Ford Fairlane, an ex-bouncer-turned-punk-rock-PI who made the New York and L.A. scenes in two serialized stories in the New York Rocker and the L.A. Weekly in 1980. Long out of print, both are now collected in The (Original Adventures) of Ford Fairlane: The Long Lost Rock ’n’ Roll Detective Stories (2018), which also includes an insightful “Backstory” by Weiner, as well as contextual interviews with the stories’ original editors, Andy Schwartz of the Rocker and Jay Levin of the Weekly, and with filmmaker Floyd Mutrux, who first tried to bring Fairlane to the screen (he is not at all responsible for the obnoxious Andrew Dice Clay–fronted adaptation from 1990, that dishonor belongs to Renny Harlin). The reappearance and reappraisal of the Fairlane stories is overdue, as these should-be classics of the genre strike a perfect tonal balance between tradition and innovation.

Wednesday, March 10, 2021

"A Corpse Walks in Brooklyn: Day Keene in the Detective Pulps, Vol. #5" edited by John Pelan (2013)

Ramble House's fifth volume of Day Keene's pulp stories is one of their strongest collections in the series thus far. Edited by John Pelan and featuring an introduction by Robert J. Randisi, A Corpse Walks in Brooklyn: Day Keene in the Detective Pulps, Vol. #5 includes three of Keene's series characters (Silent Smith, Herman Stone, and Matt Mercer) in characteristically excellent tales, but it's the non-series stories that really elevate this volume.

While Keene's pulps often focused on innocent everyman protagonists who were framed or detective-proxies (be they private eye, cop, or a stand-in), some of his funnest—and darkest—yarns were about criminals. The one in this collection is among my favorite of Keene stories. "I'll Be Seeing You" is about a racketeer who plots to get rid of the newly-elected D.A. when he meets her sister one night, unaware that she has a plan of her own underway. The ending has a delightful and dark sense of poetic justice. Keene's criminal-centered stories are often shorter than his detective-based narratives, which gives them an extra sense of bit—and "I'll Be Seeing You" shows Keene's teeth at their sharpest.

Tuesday, March 9, 2021

The Rock Hudson Collection: "Seminole" (1953), "The Golden Blade" (1953), and "Bengal Brigade" (1954)

Before he was the debonair leading man in Doris Day rom-coms like Pillow Talk (1959) and Lover Come Back (1961), and before his commanding performances in Douglas Sirk’s melodramas like All That Heaven Allows (1955) and Written on the Wind (1956), Rock Hudson was a man of action, portraying rugged characters in a variety of genres. Hudson’s star persona was quite diverse, capable of channeling the suave charm of Cary Grant, the physical dynamism of Burt Lancaster, or the soft-spoken intensity of Gregory Peck, often in the same role. And it’s this versatility that makes Hudson’s body of work so rewarding: he could lend his talents to such starkly different movies, from light hearted comedies and war pictures to heavy dramas and outdoor adventures, and be just as convincing in each of them. 

Kino Lorber Studio Classics’s Rock Hudson Collection highlights three of the actor’s early adventure pictures: the frontier epic Seminole (1953); a Middle Eastern swashbuckler, The Golden Blade (1953); and Bengal Brigade (1954), set during the Indian Rebellion of 1857. 

Sunday, March 7, 2021

"Becoming Day Keene" at the Los Angeles Review of Books


Over at the Los Angeles Review of Books, I have a piece on Day Keene focused on his working-class upbringing, early years as an itinerant actor, and his radio career, and how these experiences influenced and are reflected in his later pulp stories and paperback novels. 

Struggle is rampant in Keene’s world, and nothing ever comes easy. “It burns me up when I think of it. I get all sick inside,” admits a police lieutenant in Wake Up to Murder, lamenting about how he’s only an $80-per-week cop raising a family instead of the rich man he thought he’d be. “I guess all we little men of the world have the same problem. We’re all riding a blind horse. And despite our best efforts, most of the time it plods on where it will. And all we really can do is hang on and keep our heads.” This working-class ethos stems from Keene’s own upbringing and his pre-pulp careers as an itinerant actor in the 1920s, specializing in vaudeville and stock theater, and as a radio writer in the 1930s.

The full essay, "Becoming Day Keene: The Pre-Pulp Career of Gunard Hjertstedt," is available here.

I am deeply grateful to the LARB for publishing this piece, and my fabulous editor Boris Dralyuk for his patience, support, and enthusiasm. 

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