Thursday, January 29, 2009

"Nightmare Town" Illustrations

Illustrations to Nightmare Town (Dell #379, 1948) by Dashiell Hammett. No artist is credited. If anyone knows who drew these, please leave a comment!

"Nightmare Town"

"The Scorched Face"

"Albert Pastor at Home"


Nightmare Town by Dashiell Hammett (Dell, 1948)

Nightmare Town (Dell #379, 1948) was the seventh collection of Dashiell Hammett’s short stories and novellas to be published by Dell books. It contains four stories, "Nightmare Town" (Argosy All-Story Weekly, December 27, 1924)*, "The Scorched Face" (The Black Mask, May 1925)*, "Albert Pastor at Home" (Esquire, Autumn 1933)*, and "Corkscrew" (The Black Mask, September 1925)*, as well as an introduction by Ellery Queen.

Each of the stories is high quality, full of Hammett’s inimitable character descriptions and clean action prose, though “Nightmare Town” and “Corkscrew” stand out as highlights. All four work very well together, exposing the corruption and crime that lay hidden beneath the seemingly banal surface of Western towns and small cities. “Albert Pastor at Home” is not only the shortest story in the collection (only four pages long), but also the most unusual. It is a conversation between two friends, one of whom recounts a visit back to his rural hometown. Though it features no brawls or gunfights, the ironic twist ending reveals both Hammett’s characteristic interest in the criminal element and also his wicked sense of humor.

What makes this edition extra special is that, in addition to it being a “map back” edition (with a map featuring the locations in “Nightmare Town” on the back cover), there are illustrations throughout. I have scanned each of the illustrations and will upload them in a separate post.

As promised, a few quotes to whet your appetite:

“Strolling thus, a dark doorway suddenly vomited men upon them.”

“Spinning back on its axis, the stick reversed—the ferruled end darted up under warding arm, hit jawbone with a click, and no sooner struck than slid forward, jabbing deep into throat.”

“The ebony stick swung swifter in his hand…Spun to the clicking tune of wood on bone, on metal weapons; to the duller rhythm of wood on flesh.”

“The fence was hidden under twining virgin’s bower, clustered now with white blossoms, and the narrow walk wound through roses, trillium, poppies, tulips, and geraniums that were ghosts in the starlight.”

“The stick whipped backward and forward, from left to right, from right to left. It writhed like a live thing – seemed to fold upon its grasped middle as if spring-hinged with steel. Flashing half-circles merged into a sphere of deadliness.”

“His face was mouse colored under its blood. His eyes were glass agonies. He had the look of am an who had been kicked.”

“He was big. He was strong. He didn’t mean any good.”

“A hole was in his blouse, where it fit high under his chin. The hole bled very slowly. The floor around him showed it had been bleeding faster a little while ago.”

“The silk slid away.
Pat hauled me upright.
We started down the stairs.
A thing came past my face, stirring my bared hair.
I tilted head and gun together.”

*Special thanks for RARA-AVIS for providing bibliographic information for the original stories.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

"The Jugger" by Richard Stark (Pocket Books, 1965)

Richard Stark’s sixth incarnation of Parker, The Jugger (Pocket Books #50149, 1965), find his anti-hero looking to avoid trouble, for once. When Parker receives a letter from Joe Sheer, an old-time “jugger” (slang for safe cracker) who was supposed to be hiding under an alias in retirement, he begins to worry. Someone is on to Sheer, and in his old age he seems to be cracking. And if he cracks, that means he will expose Parker. So, hoping to preempt any major problems, Parker heads to the small town of Sagamore, Nebraska. However, it is too little too late – Sheer is mysteriously dead. To make things worse, an annoying amateur crook is also hanging around, convinced that Sheer left behind a big score—and that Parker knows where it is. And as if Parker didn’t need any more worries, the local sheriff seems to have the same idea and won’t leave Parker alone…

The Jugger is everything we’ve come to love about the Parker series. Stark’s streamlined plotting, devoid of excess complications, plays out like an architect’s blueprint, but without ever feeling overly deliberate. There’s spontaneity to the action, which demands Parker’s split-second intuition. Guided by professionalism, it’s fascinating to watch him assess his situation, the different options available, and finally execute his plan. There’s something admirable about his levelheaded logicality and ability to improvise and change his course at any moment. His choice of profession and willingness to do away with anyone who stands in his way, on the other hand…well, I don’t think Stark wants us to admire Parker too much.

Without Stark’s permission, Jean-Luc Godard adapted The Jugger to the screen as Made in U.S.A. in 1966 with Anna Karina playing Parker. Notoriously unfaithful, it’s actually somewhat close for Godard standards (remember his version of King Lear?). Still, those looking for a recognizable Parker had better look elsewhere. Godard’s film is more of an abstract meditation on genre and aesthetics than a hardboiled crime story. I elaborated more on the adaptation in a piece I wrote for The L Magazine on remembering Donald Westlake.

Always one for great first lines, I’ll have to start the list of favorite quotes with the opening sentence.

“When the knock came at the door, Parker was just turning to the obituary page.”

“The room stank of flowers and death. Orange light bulbs shaped like wrinkled mosques shone dimly in wall fixtures on the left, gleaming on the tangled pattern of the wallpaper, muting and deadening in the thick maroon rug and the heavy dark draperies around the doorways. To the right, rotting flowers in green wicker baskets stood around a coffinless bier; a few white rose petals had fallen onto the flat table-top of the bier and were slowly browning and curling into tiny fists.”

“A man who won’t give up comfort for success is a bad partner.”

“The voice was a centipede, a long twisty bug with needle-sharp feet, running back and forth on the left side of his face, driving its needle feet into the bone beside his eye and into his cheekbone and into the bone above his ear. His face hurt like fury…”

“His clothes fit him like an impatient compromise…”

“There was nothing to say. Younger was a moron with a title, that’s all; give a moron authority and after a while he forgets he’s a moron.”

“The local law was three dough-faced farm hands in rumpled blue uniforms, standing around the room looking for traffic to direct.”

“Joe Sheer was just an old jugger now, turned shaky and rusty – he’d said it himself – shaky and rusty and scared, an old jugger ready to trade every man he’d ever worked with for a nice soft mattress and a nice warm radiator and a little peace of mind.”

Hungry for more Parker? Head on over to Hard Case Crime and read an excerpt of Richard Stark’s Lemons Never Lie, yet another excellent book in the series.

Monday, January 26, 2009

"Of Tender Sin" by David Goodis (Gold Medal, 1952)

[Note: I am including both the original artwork for the Gold Medal paperback from 1952, as well as the more recent Serpent’s Tail edition from 2001. It’s just so good, I couldn’t resist.]

If there’s anything better than a David Goodis book title, it’s a David Goodis first line. And the opening to his 1952 novel Of Tender Sin (Gold Medal #226) is certainly among his best:

“It began with a shattered dream.”

Subtly despondent, it perfectly sets the tenor for the story to come, in which reality drifts in and out of focus, and the past and present are merged in a nightmare of psychological trauma. Characteristic of Goodis, the novel is largely introspective, and we readers share in the protagonist’s melancholy and sorrow. Tension derives not from action, but from emotion. It is the possibility for crime – the specter of murder, malice, and infidelity, that lies dormant in every gesture – rather than its execution, that drives the plot. This unique approach to plotting is what separates Goodis from most other writers, and also what makes summarizing his novels so difficult.

Alvin Darby has a secure job as an insurance salesman. He has a beautiful wife of six years who loves him. He doesn’t drink (unlike most other Goodis protagonists, who are alcoholics like the writer himself). His only vice seems to be that he smokes three packs of cigarettes a day, but that doesn’t worry him too much. So why does he suddenly awake in the middle of the night, thinking he heard a burglar? Well, he’s not sure. Maybe he did. And maybe he didn’t. So he looks at his wife, asleep. They love each other. But he hasn’t slept with her in weeks, and has no desire to. And then there is the matter of that burglar. Maybe he should get up and look around the house. Something seems to be beckoning him away from his wife, and out into the darkness, deeper into the unknown, further into the recesses of his subconscious. Somewhere, something is troubling him. But he can’t admit to himself what it is.

And then he overhears his wife on the phone with another man and is convinced she is cheating on him. So begins his spiral of paranoia and self-destruction as Alvin begins stalking the streets of snowy Philadelphia at night, pursuing old flames, experimenting with drugs, and recalling foggy, guilt-laden memories of his sister. Her platinum blonde hair haunts him like a strobing beacon in the fog: every woman’s hair he sees changes to that immutable hue, like some reoccurring dream. It’s yet another piece of Alvin’s psychological puzzle that he can’t quite put together.

Of Tender Sin is among the most reticently devastating of Goodis’ novels. Like Samuel Barber’s elegiac Adagio, the novel’s pacing is like a funeral parade yet it never loses its tension. Goodis describes in empathetic detail the slow dissolve of Alvin’s morals, emotions, and psychology, until he is barely a recognizable human from the inside. And this is what is so great about Goodis’ writing – his ability to put us right inside the character’s mind, to feel his every emotion, to share in his every memory. There is a poetic lucidity, a surreal clarity, to Goodis that is totally singular. The horror is not in the violence of the crimes, but the startling realism of the characters’ mindsets. Reading his novels, we can easily imagine ourselves in the same situations, making the same decisions, suffering the same fears.

Misery certainly loves company, and I’ve never come across any better company than David Goodis. But with him, it’s not so much just wallowing in another’s despair, but in finding a voice for our own quiet desperation. International conspiracies and mafia bosses never figure into his novels. Instead, Goodis’ characters are troubled by bad relationships, mundane jobs, loss of will, uncertainty of purpose, uncontrollable feelings of helplessness, and the terror of having nowhere to escape to. These anxieties are not so far from our everyday life, and ultimately this is what makes Goodis’ books so affecting and so unsettling to read.

Perhaps those of you who haven’t read Goodis are wondering why I want to read something that sounds so depressing? Those of you who have read Goodis know the answer. When I tell my friends about Goodis they are bewildered as to how bleak his books sound. All I can say is this: his writing is immaculate and evocative, and so full of feeling as few books are. If you haven’t read him yet, please go to your local independent bookstore and pick up anything they have of his.

And now for my favorite quotes…I’ll try to refrain from quoting the entire book. Really, I thought about it… For those wanting more, they can head over to Hard Case Crime to read the first chapter of The Wounded and The Slain, another excellent read.

“He stared past her, at the door window, and saw the white fury of the snowstorm. As it raged, it seemed to beckon…”

“A cat came out of an alley, took a look at all the snow, and went back in. Farther on up the street a fat man, aproned and puffing, emerged from a restaurant and whiffed the cold air and gazed yearningly at the sky. As though even the dreams were up there, much too far away.”

“His mind was vacant now, and the only thing he knew was that he didn’t care. He walked through the pitch-black chasm of somewhere past five in the morning, his coat unbuttoned, the muffler missing, the snow inside his shoes and melting there, but no awareness of it, no feeling.”

“An hour later the pencil remained untouched and the yellow paper was a platter made of yellow glass. Beneath the glass a fleet of little white boats had gone down under the guns of an unseen armada, and there they were, quiet on the bottom of the placid lake.”

“Winter was gray and mean upon the city and every night was a package of cold bleak hours, like the hours in a cell that had no door.”

“It was very fast, that first time. They were on the couch, and then they were off the couch and it was all over. It was like jumping out the window and landing on the street. A quick ride, just like that.”

“Then all the nights continuing in a timeless path where there was only the green flame, the silver-yellow of her hair dripping over the edge of the couch, dangling over the dark floor that didn’t seem to be a floor at all, just a dark emptiness.”

“His head was bent low over the desktop and his eyes were closed. There was no feeling of being in any special place, and he might have been kneeling in an unlit cave, or seated in a smoky room where there were no faces, just a lot of eyes that looked at him. Or merely drifting on a slab of ice in a quiet region of white emptiness.”

“But still he ran, begging the street to show him a police car, or a policeman, or anyone to whom he could shout for aid. But all the street showed him was a mongrel under a corner lamp, unsteady on four shivering legs, trying to make up its mind between three garbage cans.”

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

"Mourn the Hangman" by Harry Whittington (Graphic, 1952)

Mourn the Hangman, published by Graphic Books in 1952, is the third Harry Whittington novel that I’ve read (the other two being A Ticket to Hell and You’ll Die Next). While in characteristic Whittington fashion, the novel starts out running with a great first line (“Rain was the evil omen…”), much of the rest of the book lacks that certain je nais se qioi that Whittington, at his best, had so much of. Publishing at the rate he did (writing under several pen names, and ultimately producing upwards of two hundred books), one can’t fault the guy for producing a mediocre book.

Whittington was no stranger to “theme and variation” – in fact, part of what is so fun about reading these books is to watch how different writers work (and re-work) similar situations. As in You’ll Die Next, Mourn the Hangman begins with our protagonist seemingly secure at home…and that’s where the plot begins to thicken. But perhaps what Hangman lacks is enough “variation” on the conventions. The story moves along well enough, but not until the ending does the action and excitement truly pick up.

Steve Blake is a private detective. According to his wife of six months, however, he is a “private snitch” and begs him to quit the business not only for ethical reasons, but also for his own safety. On his way home from his latest case, he drops by the office to inform his partner that he is leaving. Walking through the door to his apartment, he finds his wife waiting for him – dead. Not wanting to waste a moment, Blake forgoes calling the police and heads out looking for the killer. But soon a mysterious phone call informs the police about Blake’s dead wife, and they too start searching for the killer—Blake! To make matters worse, the corporation he was investigating has discovered his true identity and has dispatched goons to hunt him down. And on top of all that, his partner has double-crossed him.

Whittington is quite capable of juggling all of these plot details, and his neatness in structuring the novel means that no detail lacks significance. It might not come until one hundred pages later, but that small detail will become important. Whittington obviously takes writing very seriously. He pays great attention to the prose (there are some really great lines) and to the psychological states of his characters. And while some of the characters in Mourn the Hangman may appear to be pedestrian (like Blake, who is your typical macho-but-sentimental hero), it is the minor characters that become the most interesting. In particular, the token “mystery bar girl” is given a crucial moment of sympathy when Whittington allows her to explain the untimely tragedy that befell her family, and the detail of her record player echoing through the motel corridor until daybreak is haunting to read about.

A fast-paced chase scene on the highway ends Mourn the Hangman on an exciting, high note. While I wouldn’t recommend those unfamiliar with Whittington to start with it, for long-time fans it is very much worthwhile, even if it only makes us appreciate the strength of his other novels even more.

Those looking to learn more about Harry Whittington should head over to Pulp Originals and read this article by Jason Starr called “Harry Whittington: King of the Pulp Originals.” Who better to pay tribute to this underappreciated figure than Starr, himself one of the leading writers of contemporary crime fiction!

And, as always, my favorite excerpts from the novel.

“And then Blake pushed through the door to the street. The rain had let up now, but the night was chilled and wet. The music from the Palm Club juke box trailed after him. Love songs. Soft insinuating voices. Things like that, he thought, are for people who are still alive. Not for Blake. He didn’t even have to close his eyes to see Stella before him. There was no reality except the way she looked, sprawled on that divan.”

“As he strode into the bus station, he heard a siren wail in the night. Crying after the hurt and the dead. A lonely, empty sound.”

“He was pretty certain he saw the thick shadow of a man stroll past the sweated window of the restaurant. The cook was frying the steak at a griddle near him though and the aroma of the sizzling meat struck him. He made up his mind to eat this meal if he hung for it. Only, you don’t hang in Florida, he thought grimly, they lead you into a little room and cook you, the way that steak’s frying on that griddle.”

“He stood up, trying to keep the defeat from his face, trying to keep his aloneness from showing in the despairing sag of his bare, cold shoulders.”

“He knew it was going to hurt, standing there staring into his eyes. What’s worse than looking into your own eyes and knowing you’re alone and despised?”

“Blake decided there was no such thing as freedom, not on this earth, not any more. You meant something to somebody: taxes, labor, gain or knowledge.”

“I’m afraid of you because you’re a sneak. Not because you’re a man. If you tried to act like a man, I’d take that little gun away from you and beat your teeth out with it. But you’re not a man. You’re a sneak. A man with a gun is one thing. But a sneak with a gun is a hell of another thing.”

“A gun cracked behind them. It sounded thin and harmless in the rushing wind. But Blake knew. It wasn’t harmless. Terravasi wasn’t the only goon who’d been taught to use a gun by Arrenhower’s money.”

“The tin car was moving again. It had eyes like a deadly beetle in the darkness behind them.”

Friday, January 16, 2009

Fredric Brown's "Night of the Jabberwock"

I had the honor and pleasure of contributing to Pattinase's "Friday's Forgotten Books" this week, so head on over to her excellent blog and check it out! You can always see her latest update in my Blog List, as well.

I wrote about Fredric Brown's marvelous Night of the Jabberwock (1950), a hardboiled-Lewis Carroll mystery, with plenty of alcohol and an escaped lunatic thrown in, just for fun. It is out of print at the moment (as most of Brown's novels unfortunately are) but it is most definitely worth hunting down.

Thanks to Patti for inviting me to join in!

And, as always, here is the original vintage artwork for the first Bantam paperback edition (Bantam #990) from 1950. Click for larger, hi-res images.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Remembering Donald Westlake

Here's a link to an article I wrote for The L Magazine about Donald Westlake that discusses several film adaptations of his work.

R.I.P., Donald...
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