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.

Monday, October 12, 2020

"The Ape" (1940)

A decade before Dick Carroll was an editor for Fawcett's Gold Medal line of paperback originals, he co-wrote The Ape (1940) with Curt Siodmak (here credited as Kurt), a classic of Poverty Row horror starring Boris Karloff. Based on a 1924 play by Adam Hull Shirk, the plot concerns concerns a mad doctor, a killer ape, a traveling circus, a paralyzed young woman, and an armed posse. Allegedly written over the course in a weekend (at least that is what Carroll told Peter Rabe), director William Nigh brings in the picture in 62 delightfully breezy, light-heartedly macabre minutes, and now available in a restored Blu-ray from Kino Lorber Studio Classics.

Dr. Bernard Adrian (Boris Karloff), disgraced and outcast because of his experiments with spinal fluid, now practices secretly in a small town. His current patient is a young paraplegic woman, Frances Clifford (Maris Wrixon). When an ape breaks loose from a traveling circus, it severely injures its trainer who is sent to Dr. Adrian. Unable—or, perhaps, unwilling—to save the trainer, Dr. Adrian seizes the opportunity to extract his spinal fluid for use on Frances. Still hunting for its trainer, the ape breaks into the doctor's lab. Adrian defends himself and stabs the ape—but instead of telling the sheriff to call off the hunt for the killer beast, Adrian keeps it a secret in order to pursue his own deadly experiments.

Friday, October 9, 2020

"Sleep With the Devil" by Day Keene (1954) FFB

A dark fable about a duplicitous Bible salesman with nothing but sex, murder, and money on his mind, Sleep With the Devil finds Day Keene entering Jim Thompson and Flannery O'Connor territory.

Les Ferron leads a double-life as muscle for a bookie in New York City, and as a door-to-door Bible salesman named "Paul Parrish" engaged to Amy, a farmer's daughter in the small puritanical town of New Hope, north of New York on the Hudson. Les has a plan to knock off his bookie, marry Amy and get her old man's land, then sell the land and high-tail it out of the country as a rich man. Everything depends on Les keeping his identities separate, but the closer he gets to pulling off his scheme the more his two lives threaten to collide.

While Keene anticipates O'Connor's Bible-thumping con artist in "Good Country People" by a year (which was published in the June 1955 issue of Harper’s Bazaar), it is possible that he was inspired by Thompson. Two years earlier, in 1952, Thompson began a five-year run of twisted noir nightmares at Lion (the publisher of Sleep With the Devil) with The Killer Inside Me, followed by Cropper's Cabin (also 1952), and then The Alcoholics, Bad Boy, Savage Night, and The Criminal (all 1953), and continuing through 1957 with five more novels along the way.

Thursday, October 8, 2020

"Martian Manhunt" by Ben Acker and Ben Blacker (2019)

For fans of old time radio, the Thrilling Adventure Hour is a must-listen to podcast—(or must-see live show, if you were lucky enough to catch them when they were on tour, which I wasn't). There's Beyond Belief if you want a spooky, martini-fueled murder mystery—think Nick and Nora Charles from The Thin Man on a supernatural case. Or The Algonquin Four, set in the 1920s, re-imagines Robert Benchley, Dorothy Parker, Harry Houdini, and Woodrow Wilson as superheroes. There's many others, but my favorite of them all is the space western Sparks Nevada, Marshal on Mars. Marc Evan Jackson starred as the titular Marshal who, along with his alien sidekick Croach the Tracker (Mark Gagliardi), roam the frontier of the red planet chasing bandits, robots, aliens, and having all sorts of wild west adventures.

Tuesday, October 6, 2020

"Hell Bent" (1918)

Hell Bent (1918) is John Ford's second earliest silent feature that survives, and thankfully  it is now available in a beautiful 4K restoration from Universal on Blu-ray courtesy of Kino Lorber Studio Classics. The plot's trajectory is simple enough—card shark falls for good girl; outlaw kidnaps girl;  card shark tries to rescue girl—but it is more of a framework for Ford to create marvelous little scenes that display all the hallmarks of his style: humor, action, and a magnificent eye for landscape. All in all, Hell Bent is a rollicking whirlwind of a western, blending action, comedy, and romance, freely and fluidly shifting between modes.

Monday, October 5, 2020

"Straight Shooting" (1917)

John Ford's first feature film as a director, Straight Shooting (1917), is now available on Blu-ray from Kino Lorber Studio Classics in an unbelievably beautiful 4k restoration from Universal. I never expected to see this movie looking this good. It's always a pleasure to see silent films presented restored so carefully—around 75% of all silents are lost, according to the Library of Congress, including most of the early work of John Ford. Which makes this Blu-ray of Straight Shooting all the more historic and significant. Finally we can see that from his first feature, all the artistic facets of John Ford are already on display. His majestic eye for compositions, a bold use of nature and architecture for framing, an intuitive sense of rhythm for both action sequences and quieter moments of contemplation, moments of near-slapstick revelry, and of course a loner, anti-hero protagonist.

Thursday, October 1, 2020

"Satan Takes the Helm" by Calvin Clements (1952) FFB

Stark House Press's Black Gat imprint has dived deep into the ocean of obscure vintage paperback originals and returned with a real treasure, one that was originally published in 1952 and has been out of print for decades.

Calvin Clements's Satan Takes the Helm is top tier Gold Medal thriller and exemplifies the hard-edged, tightly plotted, noir-laced thriller style that defined the imprint in its early days. It's a sea-faring murder mystery whose every paragraph is saturated with salt water, human sweat, and smoldering sex. Like a nautical James M. Cain, Clements writes characters desperate past the edge of reason, whose carnal thirst for survival drives them to lust and murder. Think The Postman Always Rings Twice or Double Indemnity but with its characters trapped on the same ship and you'll have an inkling of the claustrophobic sexual tension and paranoid jealousies fueling Satan Takes the Helm. This book is as noir as they come.

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