Monday, December 22, 2008

"The Girl Hunters" by Mickey Spillane (Signet, 1962)

[Note: Please forgive the poor quality of my paperback edition of The Girl Hunters. I don’t treat my books this way! This was the condition I found it in at a thrift store. I like to imagine that it has passed through many different hands, entertaining multitudes of readers. Thus, instead of an abused book, it’s one that has been excessively loved. Until I come across a better copy, it will have to do for now.]

At the end of Kiss Me Deadly (1952), the sixth Mike Hammer novel, our hero is limping away wounded, discouraged, and uncertain—three words that would never have been used to describe him back when he first appeared in I, The Jury (1947). But between those six novels, Hammer had been through a lot. Moreover, Spillane had grown by leaps and bounds as a writer, and even by the time of Vengeance is Mine (1950) he was already beginning to push the boundaries of his character. Hammer’s virility was challenged; his sexual appetite mocked; his violent nature insightfully criticized. So it’s no wonder that the last paragraph of Kiss Me Deadly reads: “I looked, looked away. The door was closed and maybe I had enough left to make it.” Maybe—or maybe not.

It was nine years before Spillane published another novel, The Deep in 1961. The next year, after a ten-year absence, Hammer made his next appearance in The Girl Hunters (1962). The always-blunt Spillane left no questions about whether Hammer “had enough left to make it.” The first line of The Girl Hunters reads: “They found me in the gutter.” In six words, Spillane manages to condense years of despondency and self-destruction. For Hammer, that pillar of masculinity, to wind up in a gutter—what more needs to be said? He had hit rock bottom. The world had lost faith in him. He had lost faith in himself. But one person hadn’t—Velda. Only Mike thought she was dead.

When a dying man whispers to Hammer that Velda is alive, fire returns to his eyes. The entire novel is dedicated to Hammer’s slow regeneration from drunken bum to red-blooded army-of-one: catching up with old contacts; winning the respect of dissenters who remember his seven-year binge; re-acquiring a gun license; exercising his manhood; refining his instincts; but most importantly, regaining his confidence. For fans of the series, there’s actually something quite touching about those few persons—a landlord, a newspaper salesman—that remained loyal to Mike through the years, and the warm way they greet him when he decides to return to life. They are never emotional and always professional, yet behind the restrained gestures and exchanges is a flood of sentiment and appreciation. Such is Hammer’s code of conduct: never beat a guy when he’s down, give a helping hand when he needs it, and never make a big deal of it.

As Mike returns to “his old self,” it’s apparent that Spillane is undoing the damage he had done to Hammer in the past few novels. He still has his weakness for women—particularly the “wrong woman,” as evinced by the archetypical ending which is like an old friend to Spillane fans—and he admittedly fumbles where he shouldn’t. But he is no longer haunted by the moral condemnations he received in One Lonely Night (1952)—in fact, he refers to them as almost justification for his actions. Spillane is not experimenting with Hammer the way he did in previous novels: not compromising his virtues or even his virtuosity. As if apologizing for the degradation, Spillane is allowing Hammer the opportunity to recollect himself and come back stronger than ever—physically, that is. In terms of character, he isn’t as nuanced or complex as in the best of the series (Vengeance is Mine and Kiss Me Deadly); nevertheless The Girl Hunters seems a necessary step after the beatings Hammer had taken in the past.

Spillane’s style, however, continues to be in top form: hallucinatory images of streets, violence, and passion; a fluid stream of words alternately poetic and lurid; pitch-perfect punctuation, particularly the fearless use of italics and exclamation points, which are indicative of his total control of tone, tempo, and language; and a sense of humor that embraces excess and delirium. In the heat of the moment, Spillane’s plotting care less for logic than intensity; often it is not until a few pages later that Hammer will go back and explain the importance of a particular detail. After all, who is solving the case—Hammer or the reader? Hammer waits for no one, not even Spillane.

To read Spillane is a great joy: he revels in words the way a composer relishes the same pitch from different instruments. His action scenes are like blitzkriegs—lightening fast, but able to create a precise image in your head. However, I prefer the more melancholic Spillane, the one who reflects on the loneliness of rainy nights in the city, and who is able to conjure up the most personal, indescribable emotions through the slightest suggestion. As one quote begins, “There is no way to describe the immediate aftermath of a sudden shock,” yet somehow he is able to do so. Here are my favorite passages and quotes from the book, though there are so many more I could have chosen.

“They found me in the gutter. The night was the only thing I had left and not much of it at that.”

“Two hours ago I was drunk. Not now. Two hours ago I was a roaring lion. Then the bottle sailed across the room. No lion left now.”

“You can stay dead only so long. Where first there was nothing, the pieces all come drifting back together like a movie of an exploding shell run in reverse. The fragments come back slowly, grating together as they seek a matching part and painfully jar into place. You’re whole again, finally, but the scars and the worn places are all there to remind you that once you were dead.”

“I sat there as if I were paralyzed: for a second totally immobilized, a suddenly frozen mind and body that had solidified into one great silent scream at the mention of a name I had long ago consigned to a grave somewhere. Then the terrible cold was drenched with an even more terrible wash of heat and I saw there with my hands bunched into fists to keep them from shaking.”

“There is no way to describe the immediate aftermath of a sudden shock. If it had come at another time in another year it would have been different, but now the stalk of despondency was withered and brittle, refusing to bend before a wind of elation.”

“The street was slick from the drizzle that had finally started to fall and the crosstown traffic was like a giant worm trying to eat into the belly of the city.”

“The place was a brownstone building in Brooklyn that stood soldier-fashion shoulder to shoulder in place with fifty others, a row of facelike oblongs whose windows made dull, expressionless eyes of the throttled dead, the bloated tongue of a stone stoop hanging out of its gaping mouth.”

“I hauled the .45 out and, without even knowing where the silenced shots were coming from, I let loose with a tremendous blast of that fat musket that tore the night wide open with a rolling thunder that let the world know the pigeon was alive and had teeth.”

“There is a peculiar anonymity you can enjoy in the city on a rainy night. You’re alone, yet not alone. The other people around you are merely motion and sound and the sign of life whose presence averts the panic of being truly alone, yet who observe the rules of the city and stay withdrawn and far away when they are close.”

Saturday, December 20, 2008

"It's a Sin to Kill" by Day Keene (Avon, 1953)

What I like about Day Keene is his swift prose, at once terse and simple yet always evocative. His plotting is barebones and straight forward, the desires of his characters primal and raw, and his words expressive and immediate. A professional writer to the core (with prolific short fiction published throughout the 1940s, and often several novels per year in the 1950s), Day Keene had the remarkable ability to transcend the conventional paths of his novels through a vibrant array of sights, sounds, and colors, and dynamic plotting that never hesitates nor stops to catch its breath. Yet in the midst of constant mystery and action, Keene will suddenly halt and call the reader’s attention to a fine detail of poetry, or perhaps an unusual but redolent metaphor that creates the perfect image. Keene’s sense of pacing is one of fine-tuned yet unpretentious skill—he never waxes poetic just to parade his ability, but always for the sake of the story.

Such is the case with It’s a Sin to Kill. Published as Avon paperback #814 in 1953, it originally appeared earlier that same year under the title Dead Man’s Tide and credited to William Richards (another of the author’s pseudonyms, his read name is Gunard Hjertstedt). It’s story concerns Charlie Ames, the captain of a small boat and former trumpeter who lost his lip as the result of a severe beating. But none of that compares with the situation that Ames has gotten himself into this time: at the start of the novel, he awakens in a strange woman’s bed with lipstick smeared on his face, an empty whisky bottle at his feet, five thousand dollars covered with blood in his pocket, and no memory of the night before. The woman, it turns out, was murdered, and Ames is the only suspect. Soon, however, Ames’ girlfriend is hit with a lead pipe, and when she goes to the police, she finds herself convicted of another murder—the maid of the previously deceased woman, who was found with a knife in her back. It is up to Ames to escape, prove both his and his wife’s innocence, and catch the real killer.

The first page of the novel is a remarkable piece of prose—the body of a dead woman floats in the ocean. But instead of lurid details, Keene describes it in an almost serene manner, remarking on the shifting landscape and rotating cast of fish, porpoises, and turtles that come to investigate the body. While undeniably a funny image, it’s also characteristic of Keene’s attention to detail, and ability to evoke a total sense of atmosphere.

For more information on Day Keene, MYSTERY*FILE has published an exceptional essay by Bill Crider, “The Gold Medal Corner,” as well as an extensive bibliography HERE. And Hard Case Crime has also published the first chapter of Keene’s Home is the Sailor (a highly recommended read) on their website HERE.

As always, here are some of my favorite quotes and passages from the novel. And first up is the opening paragraph:

“The nude body lay like a swimmer in the water, face down, one arm extended. A south moon under, breaking through a rift in the clouds, found fire on one finger of the white, outstretched hand. The small fire glittered and twinkled and flared. Even the full force of the outgoing tide surging through the narrow pass, connecting the bay with the Gulf of Mexico, failed to extinguish it. It seemed to be imbedded in the dead woman’s hand, a last spark of life in the otherwise lifeless clay.”

“A man married to Mary Lou who’d have anything to do with a bag like Helen Camden ought to have his head examined. It would be like getting up from a T-bone steak dinner to gnaw on a stale ham sandwich.”

“The pipe struck the back of her head. Too stunned to scream, still clinging to the suitcase, Mary Lou fell to her knees and the piece of pipe found her head again. She continued to kneel in an attitude of prayer. One star in all the millions of the sky grew brighter than the rest. It grew in size and brilliance until it filled the sky. Then the star exploded in a shower of shooting sparks and all was dark and silence.”

“The kettle drums of fatigue were beginning to play a tympanic solo in Ames’ head.”

“There was something indecent about death. It was so impartially final. The dead lost all rights to personal dignity. They were so much clay, to be handled as such. Being towed through the water as she was, the dead girl’s black skirt and lace-edged white petticoat slipped up to her knees, then her thighs, permitting an exposure she would never have permitted had she been alive.”

“Ames felt as if he’d been swimming through slime and seaweed ever since, and now, at the end of his swim, he was being forced to climb a glass wall.”

“Muted by distance, the siren sounded like a disappointed hound baying after an elusive fox.”

“As he did, the gun he had dropped began to yammer almost hysterically, spraying the night around him with lead.”

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

"A Firing Offense" by George Pelecanos (1992)

Originally published in 1992, George Pelecanos’ debut novel, A Firing Offense, is both bold and self-assured. While rooted in the traditions of the private detective genre, Pelecanos dares to push the boundaries of convention and create something more original, more personal. In a way it resembles David Goodis’ first novel, Retreat from Oblivion, in that it wears its ambitions on its sleeve: both were young authors ready to make a statement, full of life and feeling, misery and despondency. Pelecanos’ book, however, doesn’t feel as much like a “flawed first novel” as Goodis’ does. Instead of the sprawling emotional-epic of Retreat from Oblivion, with more than half a dozen “main” characters, A Firing Offense is focused, cohesive, and direct. Pelecanos writes with deft phrases, cutting to the core of what he wants to say. In terms of both style and plotting, Pelecanos proved himself to already be quite mature even at an early stage in his career.

The story concerns Nick Stefanos, an advertising manager for Nutty Nathan’s, a DC-based electronics store specializing in televisions and high-end stereo equipment. Divorced and dissatisfied with his job, he spends his time drinking on the job, getting high in the back-room with his former sales colleagues who continue to work the floor, and pursuing a relationship with a young college girl who thinks of their nights together as “just fun.” When the grandfather of a former stockboy approaches Nick saying the boy is missing, Nick reluctantly agrees to help in the search. He sees himself in the young boy’s shoes—addicted to drugs, loud music, and partying—and wants to help him out. However, the further Nick digs, the more he finds himself ensnared in a East Coast-drug operation, as well as the victim of his former self-punishing addictions.

As a detective, Stefanos is an interesting comparison to Marlowe. Whereas Chandler’s detective attempted to be a “white knight” in a flawed world, I get the impression that Stefanos fell off the horse (or, perhaps “wagon” is more appropriate, considering his addictions) years ago and has never tried to get back on. His decision to help find the missing boy seems less an act of goodwill, or a favor, than it is a way of saving his own lost adolescence. Ironically, the path he takes leads him right back to where he started—slamming beers on (literally) almost every other page, or lighting up one substance or another. Where he and Marlowe are certainly similar is that they both essentially “fail” to enact any change, personal or global. They stay the same, and so does the world. In Pelecanos’ fatalistic vision of life, despondency is everlasting.

Here are some of my favorite quotes and passages from the novel. Pelecanos can be extremely funny at times (particularly in his descriptions of the electronics sales business) or cut to the core of a character in a mere sentence.

“Her baggy pants were frumpy and her sweatshirt featured a circular medallion of vomit centered between her breasts. Four kids and the raising of them had widened her hips and prematurely aged her face. But she had the relaxed beauty of contentment.”

“Louie was surprised to see me in his store. He was a short, barrel-chested guy in his fifties with a wide, flat nose that appeared to have been smashed in by a shovel. As he walked towards me, I noticed that his gut had swelled, his neck had all but disappeared, and there was much more gray salted in his hair. He looked somewhat like a cinderblock with legs.”

“A small man with a heavily veined nose wearing a tuxedo that fit like an afterthought walked into the room.”

“My house resembled a bombed-out Laundromat. The cat had Lee’s underwear on her head and was bumping into furniture. Lee pulled my face down and kissed me on the mouth for a long time.”

Pelecanos pays particular attention to the music his characters listen to. Here is a characteristic passage, explaining the emotional and historical context of Nick’s taste. “This was late in ’79 or early in 1980, the watershed years that saw the debut release of the Pretenders, Graham Parker’s Squeezing Out Sparks, and Elvis Costello’s Get Happy, three of the finest albums ever produced. That I get nostalgic now when I hear ‘You Can’t Be Too Strong’ or ‘New Amsterdam,’ or when I smell cigarette smoke in a bar or feel sweat drip down my back in a hot club, may seem incredible today—especially to shoe who get misty-eyed over Sinatra, or even at the first few chords of ‘Satisfaction’—but I’m talking about my generation.”

“‘Relax, will you?’ McGinnes stopped me with his hand on my chest. ‘I bet you can’t even tell me what you did a week ago today. But when you’re drooling in your wheelchair in forty years, you’ll remember this night—the way the woods smell right now, the sound of the train. That rush you got when you were running across the clearing. This is happening, man, this is what’s important. Everything else is bullshit.’”

“‘I guess you got your information,’ he said.
“‘That’s right.’
“‘There’s blood on your shirt,’ he said.
“‘I know,’ I said, pressing down on the accelerator. ‘It isn’t mine.’”

Monday, December 15, 2008

"Fifty-to-One" by Charles Ardai (Hard Case Crime, 2008)

With Fifty-to-One Charles Ardai, the man behind-the-scenes at Hard Case Crime, has proven yet again why he ranks up there among the label’s best writers, alongside Mickey Spillane, Stephen King, Lawrence Block, David Goodis, Ken Bruen, Donald Westlake—the list goes on and on, and Ardai gives them all a run for their money. His second novel, Songs of Innocence (published under the pen name Richard Aleas), one of the most affecting and desolate books I’ve read, is arguably the best book the label has put out. Fifty-to-One, which just hit the shelves, is markedly different than its predecessor. Instead of plumbing the gutter of one man’s soul and all his failings, Ardai has given us a clever and comic mystery/adventure yarn in celebration of Hard Case’s fiftieth release. And a fitting commemoration it is.

Using the title of each of Hard Case’s releases as a chapter title, Ardai chronicles the misadventures of a naïve girl, Tricia, from South Dakota, as she moves to New York City to live with her sister and winds up being chased by the NYPD, the FBI, and a notorious gangster who thinks she stole 3 million dollars from him. With chapter titles like “Lemons Never Lie” and “Shooting Star and Spiderweb” to work around, it’s nothing short of extraordinary how Ardai is able to maneuver through them effortlessly, transcending the structural conceit and making the plot’s progression completely organic. Rising out of the endless cycle of captures and escapes is Tricia’s restrained (or just “strained,” all things considered…) but tender relationship with Charley Borden, the con-artist/book publisher who first swindled all her money away from her, and then commissioned the book that put them both in such hot water. Like two screwball comedians, Tricia and Charley only realize their affection once they stop screaming at each other—and it takes nearly the whole novel for there to be a quiet moment between all the bullets and knives and sirens.

What is remarkable about Ardai’s writing is that he is able to make “hardboiled” seem natural. It’s a feat that was nearly impossible even in the golden days of pulp publishing, but somehow Ardai does it. I don’t know how—but it never fails to impress me. He doesn’t go for easy laughs, or exaggerated stylistics. There’s none of the exclamation points or italics of Spillane (though the influence is there), nor any of the absurd theatrics of Prather or the terseness of Hammett. Finding characteristic excerpts from Fifty-to-One was difficult because Ardai doesn’t write in pull-quotes; instead, there’s an eloquence to his writing that takes paragraphs and pages to fully appreciate. His craft is finely honed, simple and direct, using only the necessary words to evoke the image necessary in a reader’s mind. I’ve picked some of my favorite short passages, which I hope do justice to the humor and skill of the novel. For those wanting more, Hard Case has generously posted the entire first chapter of the novel online here.

“But Tricia had limited confidence in the value of prayers. So she walked, fast as she could, through the night.”

“The jacket hung a little loose on him, Tricia thought, like he’d lost weight recently; funny, the things you think about at a time like this.”

“‘I’ll have you know,’ Tricia said, coldly, ‘things move plenty fast in South Dakota. Boys have more hands there than a wall of clocks.’”

“It was widely known to be a place only men frequented, and mostly a certain type of man: an older man, perhaps, or one burdened with some minor deformity; the halt, the lame; the shy, the scared, the slow of tongue, the foreign accented; those men who appetite for female company, in short, exceeded their ability to procure any for themselves absent a fistful of tickets and a roster of women whose job it was to not notice the defects in their dancing partners.”

“She’d pictured her sister headlining in a rooftop revue, or at least enlivening the chorus, not letting herself be tooled around a dance floor by a succession of sweaty-handed romeos with a buck to spare.”

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

"The Cockeyed Corpse" by Richard S. Prather (Gold Medal, 1964)

Richard S. Prather’s The Cockeyed Corpse, published by Gold Medal Books in 1964, is a genre-bending extravaganza, showcasing the author’s immense talent for hardboiled absurdity. Essentially, it’s a backstage-nudist-Western-cum-murder mystery, the very premise of which is indicative of Prather’s eccentric narrative style. Fourteen years and twenty-five books (including one collection of novellas, and one of short stories) after his initial appearance in 1950’s Case of the Vanishing Beauty, detective Shell Scott is in need of a vacation—badly. A fortuitous phone call from an old friend, Ben Freedlander, brings him from L.A. to Arizona to investigate the “accidental” death of a young starlet on a movie set. Enticing as the work is, it is Freedlander’s mention of four other young actresses that need Scott’s protection that sends him packing.

Arriving on the set of The Wild West, little does Scott realize how “wild” things will get: a couple of hoods are waiting for him at the train station with guns blazing; some big-shot gangsters from L.A. have taken up residence in the same ranch as the movie’s cast and crew; and the movie, it turns out, is one of those “nudie” flicks which have been gaining popularity, and of which Scott is a big fan. Vying for Scott’s attention over the investigation are the surviving four actresses—Delise, Zia, Choo-choo, and April—all of whom are invariably topless throughout most of the novel. And, of course, Scott shows more than ample interest in the quartet.

Prather seems less concerned with building suspense than inventing increasingly humorous situations that pair the detective with the unclothed actresses. Perhaps surprisingly, the novel is actually scant on the lurid details which dot the pulps like so many periods and commas; instead, with cartoonish exaggeration, Prather describes Scott’s ogling eyes, which are always threatening to pop out of his face on every other page. There’s something almost slapstick about his excessive libido, which at one point finds him running off to save the girls with neither gun nor shirt—leaving him feeling simultaneously both compromised and embarrassed.

Overall, The Cockeyed Corpse, Prather’s twenty-sixth Shell Scott book, feels both fresh and lively. The plot is riddled with moments of hilarity (such as when Scott, dressed up as a boulder, seemingly performs a one-man re-enactment of Macbeth’s final battle) and memorable descriptions (such as “big, lumbering Dodo, the Twentieth-Century diplodocus”). Below are some of my favorite excerpts from the book:

Describing hiding in close quarters with the four actresses: “I was getting electrocuted in a Finnish sauna. Inside my skull was a sparkling radiance, a kind of glowing incandescence, like radioactive oatmeal…”

Describing his new cowboy clothes: “I do like a little color in my garb, but…Actually, I looked as if I were giving off cosmic rays. If I got near any cows they’d probably moo at me and give pasteurized milk from then on.”

“Then I got my two guns, slipped the Colt .38 into its clamshell holster under my fringed buckskin jacket, and dropped the pearl-handled six-shooter into the holster on my hip and stuck Clyde’s nine-shot automatic in my pants packet, and put on my white sombrero. All I needed was a horse—but that I could do without. Instead of a horse, I ran to my Cadillac. There was no point in overdoing this thing.” (This wonderfully over-the-top description reminds me of the finale of Christa Faust’s Money Shot in which the main character dons the most garish stripper attire in preparation for the big showdown. Faust is an admitted Prather fan, and her novel, released earlier this year by Hard Case Crime, is highly recommended to anyone who likes Prather’s work.)

“I guess to anybody, under any circumstances, to see a gun poking out of a rock would jar you, but I thought Farmer was going to have a hemorrhage, a bowel movement, and a seizure, all at once. I pulled the trigger.”

“Except this time all four of the gals were dressed in ‘city’ clothes—low, plunging, décolleté and all that, and I mean all that.”

And my favorite passage of all: “They had all followed Delise automatically, after the fashion of startled and stampeding turkeys. Well, not turkeys. Chickens, maybe? Plucked. That’s not it, either. But turkeys or chickens, they were all naked as jaybirds such being their apparently near-permanent condition, and I knew that even if I got shot in the head this instant, I would carry a tremendous vision with me into the next world. I will not describe it. I cannot. Nobody could. But I’ll give you a hint: For the last twenty yards of my sprint I forgot all about guns behind me, and was not in any sense whatsoever running away from anything.”

It is moments like this that remind me why I love reading Richard Prather: when even the author has to stop a moment and marvel at the fantastical situation in which he has placed Shell Scott. Truly, it’s a sight to behold.