Friday, February 27, 2009

"Trial by Fury" by Craig Rice (International Polygonics Ltd., 1991)

[Note: Trial By Fury was originally published in 1941 by Simon and Schuster. I read the 1991 reprint by International Polygonics, Ltd. Nicky Zann once again designed the wonderfully comic cover.]

Craig Rice creates a world unto its own. She tears through her novels the way her character Helene Brand drunkenly whips around corners in her automobile. If zaniness is intoxicating, then consider Trial By Fury fully soused. Every page is saturated with her inimitable wit and unsettling caricature of rampant murder, political corruption that is equally prevalent in small towns as big cities, and a reckless upper class with no concern for law or order - all of which is served up in a constant, drunken haze. Yet underneath Rice’s comic veneer is a world of steadfast amorality: life is cheap, law is fraudulent, and liquor is the only relief from the meaninglessness of everything. Alcohol was a constant source of escapism not only for Rice’s characters, but herself as well. It is not for nothing that William Ruehlmann wrote of her, “the Dorothy Parker of detective fiction, she wrote the binge but lived the hangover.”

Trial By Fury is the fifth novel in the on-going saga of lawyer John J. Malone, nightclub owner/former bandleader Jake Justus and his wife, the socialite Helene Brand. At the start of the novel, Jake and Helene are off to the sleepy town of Jackson, Wisconsin to do some hunting. Someone else also had guns on their mind: while waiting in line at the county courthouse, someone assassinates ex-Senator Pevely. All the witnesses, however, are too stunned by the first murder in thirty-two years to actually be witnesses. So—Helene and Jake are locked up, and John J. Malone is reluctantly called away from Chicago to get his friends out of trouble. Before that can happen, however, there are several more murders, as well as explosions, gunshots, blackmail, a lynch mob, plenty of “dollar gin,” and a giant bloodhound named Hercules. This gives you an idea why Thrilling Detective dubbed Rice “The Queen of the Surrealistic Crime Story.”

For all her fondness for the screwy and bizarre, Rice’s prose is deftly subtle. Gags and one-liners are nowhere to be found. Instead, there’s a Thurber-esque interest in the anthropology of her characters and their words, gestures, and interactions. The more one reads of Malone and company, the fonder one grows of their idiosyncrasies – Malone’s curmudgeonly attitude, Helene’s drunk driving, and Jake and Helene’s on-and-off again domestic spats. And as for the wealth of minor characters that change from book to book, it is like sitting in a diner in another town, and watching the regulars come and go. So comfortable are they with their surroundings that they don’t realize how open they are to their true personalities and quirks. Rice’s Malone series can be read in any order without losing anything. However, so strong are her characters that it is more fun to read them in order, so that you can follow Rice’s own growing relationship to her characters.

Below are a few of my favorite quotes from Trial By Fury.

“Jake might be in trouble. Helen might have run over somebody. No, that wouldn’t be murder. Although he had a conviction that the way she drove her high-powered cars was a crime worse than murder.”

“Anybody who has the reputation of being the gentlest soul in town must have the seeds of murder in him somewhere.”

“He glanced at his watch and found that it was nearly five o’clock. It was going to be a long, hard and probably unhappy day, he reminded himself, what with small-town politics, murdered Senators, unmarried mothers, and white-haired, elfish little men who didn’t know that prohibition had been repealed.”

“You can’t massacre just one person… One is a murder, two is a sex slaying, three is a massacre.”

“‘Never look a Greek in the mouth when he comes bearing a gift horse,’ Malone said cheerfully. He paused in the act of opening the bottle. ‘I mean beware of the Greek when he comes bearing a horse in his mouth.’”

“There was one bird, with a particularly nasty voice, that seemed louder than the rest. That one, Malone decided, was the bird that had waked up all the other birds. Nor was it an ambitious bird who wakened early in order to herald the sun. It was probably a disreputable, disorderly bird who had been out all night, and now had staggered home in the first pale light of day to make the morning hideous.”

"Miami Purity" by Vicki Hendricks (Busted Flush Press, 2007)

A first line says a lot about a novel. It can pull you into the story, introduce you to a character, and give you insight into the writer. The first line of Vicki Hendricks’ Miami Purity is one of those phrases that does all three, and so much more. “Hank was drunk and he slugged me – it wasn’t the first time – and I picked up the radio and caught him across the forehead with it.” From first word to last, Miami Purity is noir without mercy. Hendricks captures the throbbing emotions of her characters: angry, desperate, depraved, sleazy, passionate, and uncontrolled, they are like blood vessels ready to burst. Their vigor for life threatens their very existence, and like two drunken, sweaty dancers in a darkened bar, they rub right up against the edge of destruction, at once afraid of pushing through to the other side and unable to think of anything else.

The first line introduces Sherri Parlay as a woman who has not only taken a few hits in her time, but also dealt a few blows herself. One of those blows, in fact, sends Hank to the morgue and Sherri into an alcohol-infused daze. “I went on drinking and missing that son of a bitch like hell… He had a terrible mean streak, but we were good together – specially when we got our clothes off.” No one ever said love was easy, and Miami Purity never lets its characters forget it. Sobered up, Sherri takes a job at Miami Purity Dry Cleaners, owned by the hard-drinking, hard-boiled Brenda. Almost immediately, her life gets back on track, but not the track that Sherri intended. Instead, she’s fallen – hard – for Brenda’s son, Payne, and finds herself enmeshed in a perverse, Oepidal conflict that would knock Freud for a loop.

Originally published by Pantheon in 1995, Miami Purity was re-released in 2007 by Busted Flush Press with an introductory “poem” by Ken Bruen, who nails the book on the nose by dubbing it, “as black as the soul of a priest with malevolence on his mind, hollow prayers on his beads.” And the always-insightful Megan Abbott follows up the novel with an Afterword that traces Miami Purity’s hide-and-go-seek game with James Cain’s iconic The Postman Always Rings Twice. “We can savor Hendricks’ manipulation of noir conventions, bringing forward many of the genre’s compulsions, smashing some and recasting others, all with abandon.” With such clearly defined generic archetypes, there’s no safe strategy for either avoiding or embracing them – in fact, outright avoiding seems absolutely impossible. What Vicki Hendricks proves with Miami Purity is that these models, some of which were cast over eighty years ago, are far from dead. Nor are they hegemonic or unalterable. Self-sufficient, sexually assertive women are no longer limited to being a femme fatale, nor are men resigned to being their victims; instead, with the homme fatale on the loose, deadly is the male.

You can purchase a copy of Miami Purity directly from Busted Flush Press by visiting their website HERE, or drop by your local independent bookseller.

Still wanting more? Here are a few choice quotes from the book.

“Even feeling lousy I enjoyed watching those rosy bags of clothes sway and roll their way around the bend towards me. It was like a sideways Ferris wheel. It started quick, got up speed, and then jerked to a stop. Round and round in whatever direction the button pusher made it go. Like my life, I thought. I start to think I’m getting somewhere but find out I’m really on the same old flat track going round.”

“She put a hand on my upper arm. I think she meant it to be firm and warm, but her nails were long and felt a little like claws.”

“We can’t make it good. There’s no good. It was all in my imagination.”

“I look back out the window through streaks of wet grime. The sky is still gray, and water drips off the icy gutter. Let that red sun shine down on Miami, like always, and make the blue eyes sparkle with promises for somebody else. Ain’t no sunshine in Baltimore. The sky’s solid and cold, like a heart that’s stopped.”

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

"Have Gat – Will Travel" by Richard Prather (Gold Medal, 1957)

Have Gat – Will Travel (Gold Medal #677, 1957) comprises six of Richard Prather’s Shell Scott stories that originally appeared in various magazines between 1952 and 1956. They are all solid, characteristic examples of Prather’s slapstick-hardboiled hybrid and his inimitable, charming sleaze-ball detective. The architecture of the plots are all straightforward, allowing Shell the most leeway for his explosive personality – and gun, of course.

One of the things that has always interested me about Prather is that not only is he is well aware of Shell’s comic-machismo, but that Shell is aware of it as well. He comments on his garish yellow Cadillac and his busted nose that never healed properly. He even wonders why some of the women are so attracted to him – but, maybe that is just false modesty. Like a cross between Robert Leslie Bellem and Mickey Spillane, Prather careful balances satire and seriousness. Shell Scott isn’t just some “joke” that is out to make fun of private detectives. If that were the case, he wouldn’t have sustained dozens of novels and even more short stories.

What makes Shell so appealing, as well as enduring, is that he’s more than just a super-hero. In these stories alone, he’s on the verge of bankruptcy, shot numerous times, forced to take morphine in order to go into battle, and reminded constantly that his bullheaded zest for women is more than just a minor vulnerability. Heck, even when he makes a movie to help solve a case, he can’t help but admit how terrible an actor he is. Shell has a great sense of humor about himself, and can laugh at the situations he gets himself into. And they can be real doozies, with Prather’s skillful adeptness at both slapstick humor and pulse-racing action.

Shell Scott doesn’t fight crime because of any moral conviction or higher calling, nor because of the money (he seems permanently on the verge of bankruptcy). The girls are appealing, yes, and he does love firing guns. But, perhaps more than anything else, he just seems perfect for the job. Can you imagine Shell Scott doing anything else other than being a private eye? With his quick wit, faster trigger finger, obstinate determination, and irrefutable charm (that sometimes gets him into trouble, but also always gets him out of it), Shell Scott is one of literature’s iconic private detectives.

Here’s a rundown of the stories, a short description, a favorite quote from each, as well as the original publication info. Thanks to Thrilling Detective for providing such a thorough and comprehensive bibliography.

“Sinner’s Alley” (Adam, April 1953)
Shell battles a teenage gang.
“The short kid I’d kicked in the groin was vomiting. I hunted till I found the hammer and my gun, then I walked to Shorty and hit him on the head with the hammer. He rolled over. Ratface was moaning softly, so I gave him a tap, too. Then I walked to Chuck, hoping he’d wiggle so I could clobber him. He lay quietly. What the hell! I thought, and I clobbered him anyway.”

“Code 197” (Manhunt, June 1955)
Shell gets tangled in a Communist conspiracy.
“There was a little popping sound and then my gun was jarring the palm of my left hand. I wasn’t conscious of lifting my arm and pulling the trigger, but I saw the guy jerk, heard the meat-ax smack of bullets into his chest. I emptied the revolver into him.”

“The Build-Up”
(Suspect, June 1956)
Shell has his poker winnings stolen and is framed for murder.
“Hold it. Most of the cops in town are looking for me. I haven’t time to explain. Ah, sweetheart, uh…I haven’t time for that, either.”

“Trouble Shooter” (Accused, January 1956)
Shell investigates the death of an actress and winds up making his own movie.
“Shell Scott in action. Producer, director, writer, and star. Orson Welles crossed with Jack Webb. Hollywood’s wonder boy, Shell Scott.”

“Murder’s Strip Tease” (Thrilling Detective, February 1953)
Shell’s client is assassinated in his own office while trying to hire him.
“Yeah, guppies. I like guppies and the hell with you.”

“The Sleeper Caper” (Manhunt, March 1953)
Shell heads to Mexico to investigate crooked horse races.
“That’s me. I am the slob with the two tomatoes, and the hell with you.”

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Stories for Sunday: "Killer Ace" by David Goodis (The Lone Eagle, February 1941)

For this week's Stories for Sunday I am featuring a story by noir master David Goodis - but not one of his mysteries. Like many of his era, Goodis learned his craft by pumping out stories for pulp magazines, nor was he limited to only one genre. In addition to mysteries, Goodis was a prolific action-adventure writer, and "Killer Ace" is one of the many aviation yarns he penned in the early 1940s.

Originally published in The Lone Eagle in February of 1941, those familiar only with the introspective, minimalist narratives of Black Friday or The Blonde on the Street Corner are in for an eye-opening surprise. "Killer Ace" is chock full of action on every page - whizzing planes, streams of bullets, and broken jaws. Written ten months before Pearl Harbor, the story concerns an American student named Dane Kern studying physics at Oxford who enlisted in the British military because of his interest in aviation. As the story opens, he is the sole survivor of a disastrous mission in which the German pilot Von Krim killed everyone else in Kern's squadron. Nor is this the first time Von Krim and his crew have defeated the British pilots. Kern is convinced that someone must be giving the Germans advance information about their plans, and he thinks he has an idea who is behind it all...

Here are a few examples of Goodis' pen in action, including the sizzling first line:

"The German plane came hurtling out of the sky like a pain-crazed eagle. Trigger fingers jabbed death-filled lead through the air four thousand feet up. Von Krim's mouth twisted in a devilish grin. He looked like Satan himself as he dove for the Englishman's tail, raced a pattern of dots up the fuselage, and then shrieked in eerie delight as that death-line reached the cockpit. The English pilot slumped down in his seat, his brain riddled by bullets."

"They were fighting like madmen. The tears in their eyes were not tears of fright or horror. They were tears of sorrow, tears of rage, tears of vengeance. But the English flyers needed more than sobs to combat the ruthless von Krim and his squadron of devils."

"They went down like tall grass before a scythe, those Nazis."

Liven up your Sunday morning with "Killer Ace" by David Goodis, courtesy of PulpGen.

Friday, February 20, 2009

"The Weeping and the Laughter" by Vera Caspary (Popular Library, 1951)

Vera Caspary is best known for writing Laura (1944), which was turned into a film by Otto Preminger starring Gene Tierney and Dana Andrews. Both are certified noir classics. Published seven years later, The Weeping and the Laughter (Popular Library #373, 1951) fails to measure up to the expectations set by Laura.

It’s clear that Caspary is trying to reclaim some of the glory of Laura, as it borrows some of its same themes, characters, and style. They both feature successful businesswomen who are highly independent, and both novels tell the story from multiple viewpoints. But whereas Laura switched between first-person narrators, and used their contradictory perspectives to propel the mystery of the narrative forward, The Weeping and the Laughter uses an omniscient narrator that goes in and out the minds of all the different characters, eventually getting lost amongst in an overly populated story. Between family, neighbors, colleagues, competitors, friends, and enemies, there are just too many characters, none of whom have much distinction at all. Most ambiguous of all, however, is it’s central character. Emmy Arkwright. Throughout Laura we keep asking, “Who killed Laura Hunt?” We are supposed to ask a similar question throughout The Weeping and the Laughter, but instead, I kept asking, “Who is Emmy Arkwright, and why do I care?”

Regrettably, Caspary never really answers either.

The story begins with a near-car collision between Emmy Arkwright and Nat Volck, she in a Rolls Royce and he in a Chevrolet. She is a wealthy fashion designer and socialite, and he is a doctor who got his training on the front lines of World War II and spent several years offering his services to third-world countries. Even though they are neighbors, they belong to separate worlds, yet when he gets a call one night that Emmy has attempted suicide, they become inexorably linked.

The mystery that runs throughout the novel is, “Did Emmy attempt suicide, or was someone trying to kill her?” Unfortunately, it isn’t enough to sustain its 222 pages. As Caspary introduces an overstuffed cast of characters (including a spiteful sister-in-law, jealous colleague, and two-timing lover), it’s hard to imagine any of them killing her. Rich as they are, they seem quite comfortable with passive-aggressive disdain for one another. At the same time, we never develop enough intimacy with Emmy to really understand or care about why she would try to kill herself. Both she and Nat Volck are like vacuous spaces, and their actions automatic and predictable. As lead characters they fail to draw us in to the narrative. And as a capable a writer as Caspary is, the elements just don’t come together in The Weeping and the Laughter.

The novel is not without its merits. The opening near-accident is engaging, and there are also several humorous moments with the blunt and bitchy sister-in-law. And then there is Caspary’s own writing, of which there are many memorable lines. Here are a few of my favorites.

“Through two windshields their eyes met. The length of the two radiators measured wrath. The cars stood nose to nose like challenging beasts.”

“The homely task distracted Forest. No man could be prostrate while he tried to pry bits of threat out of a zipper’s stubborn metal teeth.”

“Fran laughed at the absurdity. Now that Hitler was dead, she felt free to loathe Herbert’s ex-wife more than any other living person.”

“All unhappy together, this way is better. But Americans, with you unhappiness is like syphilis in the family, a black secret.”

“God help us all, victims of our illusions and early mistakes, victims torn and bleeding in the war between faith and reality in a world that has changed too fast for its inhabitants.”

Friday, February 13, 2009

"Red Gardenias" by Jonathan Latimer (International Polygonics Ltd., 1991)

For this week's Friday's Forgotten Books, I wrote about Jonathan Latimer's Red Gardenias, the fifth and final entry in his Bill Crane series. Patti Abbott was kind enough to post my review on her blog, along with other reviews by Paul Brazill, Kaye Barley, Mary Reed, and Patti herself.

Originally published in 1939, the edition I read was the 1991 reprint by International Polygonics, Ltd., who thankfully reprinted all of Jonathan Latimer's books, as well as other great works by Craig Rice and Anthony Boucher, to name just a few. Jennifer Place did interesting collage artwork for most of the Latimer editions, and Nicky Zann did fabulous, satirical cartoons for the Rice novels. Sadly, IPL seems to have gone out of business in the mid-1990s. If you search hard enough, however, you can still find their books.

Latimer's cynical blend of screwball and hardboiled is always a pleasure to read. Here are a couple of quotes that are characteristic of his style.

"He remembered with growing indignation the calm manner in which Ann had sent him downstairs. Women were queer. They'd fuss over a man going out in a rainstorm or on a fishing trip, but they'd send him after a burglar as offhandedly as they would for the morning milk."

"He felt a little bit lonely. Nobody liked him except Dolly Wilson. It was tough, being a detective and having nobody but Dolly Wilson liking you. He felt possibly he was a little drunk. That was good, but he wished he had someone around who liked him and who...and whom he liked. That was good grammar. Damn good grammar!"

Check out this week's reviews here.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

"Walking the Perfect Square" by Reed Farrel Coleman (Busted Flush Press, 2008)

More so than any other private detective I’ve ever read about, Moe Prager seems like a real human being. He’s no crusading knight, action hero, or existentialist antihero. Nor is he just an “ordinary” guy set in “extraordinary” circumstances. The story of Walking the Perfect Square comes right out of our daily newspapers, and its characters are people we pass on the street everyday, sit next to on the bus, or live under our same roof. It would have been easy for Reed Farrel Coleman to concede to genre, to make compromises with his story just because certain things are “accepted” in mystery fiction. Instead, he tries to ensure that the gravity of real life is felt in every gesture, in every plot twist, and in every line of dialogue. He’s skilled enough a storyteller than he can tie up loose ends without necessarily resolving the tensions felt by the characters. For, if anything, the circumstances of Walking the Perfect Square continue to haunt not only the characters, but also the readers, long after the book is over.

When a dying man he has never met calls him to his bedside to hear a secret, Moe Prager is sent thirty years into the past to relive his first ever case as a private investigator. It is 1978, and he has just been laid-off from the NYDP during an economic slump. Still recovering from an un-heroic slip on a piece of paper that left his knee badly injured, Prager takes a job as a private investigator in a missing persons case involving a young college student that disappeared after a night at the bar. The more Prager searches, however, the more he is convinced that not only does the kid not want to be found, but that his family might not want him found either.

Originally published in 2001, Walking the Perfect Square was reprinted by Busted Flush Press in 2008 in a great new edition with a foreword by Megan Abbott (Edgar-winning author of Queenpin and other excellent books) and an afterword by Coleman in which he discusses the creation and evolution of Prager’s character. Abbott’s introduction, in particular, is an invaluable companion to the book, helping to place Coleman within the context of the private eye genre, and pointing out where he diverges from tradition and forges his own path. “Betrayals can and do occur, but Prager’s relationships—romantic, familial, collegial, fraternal—are as central to this novel as [Phillip] Marlowe’s are to his,” Abbott writes. This sense of Prager being firmly a part of, and product of, his community is something missing from Hammett, Chandler, Spillane, and many of the foundational writers. Those detectives are loners, marginal characters that can’t exist within the world as it exists. They have to be a force for change, whether it is actualized or not. Prager, on the other hand, is subject to the forces at hand. Like the rest of us, he’s trying to get by. He’s not happy with what he sees, but he knows he’s not a superhero. He does what he can, and lives with the consequences.

Perhaps Moe Prager is best summed up in this one line: “No, Mr. Beaman. I’m not smart. I just have a conscience.”

And lest you get the impression that Coleman lacks a sense of humor – well, he doesn’t. In fact, he’s pretty damn funny. As you’ll see, some of my favorite lines in the book are full of Coleman’s warm, perceptive wit. If you’d like to sample more of Walking the Perfect Square, head over to Busted Flush Press where you can purchase the book, or download this PDF that includes a lengthy excerpt of the novel, as well as both Megan Abbott and Coleman’s new essays.

And now—on with the quotes!

“The answer I give as to how I hurt the knee is inversely proportionate to the amount of alcohol I’ve consumed. Sober, I tell them I was hit by a flaming arrow shot by some schizophrenic junkie from a housing project roof in Queens. Two drinks, I tell them I injured the knee catching a baby thrown from a burning building by its frantic mother. Shitfaced, I tell the truth: I slipped on a piece of carbon paper in the squad room.”

“He wasn’t impressed by my powers of deduction. He wasn’t the type to be impressed by much. Maybe, I thought, if I pulled a silver dollar from behind his ear…”

“Pooty’s was the kind of place where people were encouraged to gouge their initials into the tables with keys. Old poets went there to die.”

“When I walked in even the flies yawned. So much for High Noon.”

“His ears were so littered with studs, safety pins and dangling razor blades that if he were to stand between two strong magnets his face would peel off.”

“Eating ribs on a second date takes nerve. It’s difficult to look suave gnawing on dead pig bones and licking red goo off your fingers. And scraping sinew out from between your teeth always drives ‘em wild.”

“I suppose it’s a scientific impossibility, but sometimes it just seems that, like a rug or silk tie, the atmosphere can be permanently stained.”

Monday, February 9, 2009

Head over to The Hub!

Gordon Harries, who runs the blog Needle Scratch Static, has just started a new column called "Crime Scene" in the online magazine The Hub. Issue #74 is just out, and for his inaugural column he has written an insightful and informative essay called "Dashiell Hammett and ‘Red Harvest’: An Appreciation." "Corruption is endemic to the human condition and that the acceptance of that corruption simply enables it to spread ever further," Harries rightfully points out. Be sure to check back often with The Hub for more updates.

Download The Hub #74 here.

The Silence After Sound: Hollywood's Last Silent Movies

When I'm not reading books, I'm usually watching movies. And, as of late, most of them have been silent, as I've been preparing a series of reviews for Not Coming to a Theater Near You. The feature is called "The Silence After Sound: Hollywood's Last Silent Movies" and it examines silent cinema in the wake of The Jazz Singer. My introductory essay went up late last night (or was it early this morning?) and, beginning tomorrow, we will post a new review every day. I don't want to give away the titles, but there will be 16 in total.

Read my introduction here, and be sure to check back daily at for updates!

Below I've provided a few stills from some of the movies that will be reviewed as a hint of what's in store. Try and guess which films they come from in the comments section!

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Stories for Sunday: "Sleeping Dogs" by Robert Leslie Bellem (Spicy Detective, September 1934)

Starting today I am beginning a new series of posts called “Stories for Sunday.” Every week, I will post a link to a different mystery story online.

This week’s story is “Sleeping Dogs” by Robert Leslie Bellem, originally published in Spicy Detective (September, 1934). The story stars Bellem’s iconic private eye, Dan Turner, who is hired to investigate a young Hollywood starlet who is being blackmailed for a skin flick she made a long time ago. This story is typical of Bellem – fast paced, plenty of violence and sex (for it’s time), and full of playful prose. Here are some examples:

“The door opened. I shoved my .38 square in her face and said ‘How would you like a mouthful of bullets?’”

“I grabbed the inkwell from my desk and let him have it square behind the ear. He dropped like a poled ox.”

“I aim to get my pile and quit before the law of averages lays for me with a gut-full of steel-jacketed pills.”

If phrases like this would make your Sunday just a little more enjoyable, then this is the story for you. Click here to download a PDF of the story courtesy of PulpGen.

For those of you looking to relive the experience of reading this story in a magazine, Vintage Library has reprinted the entire original September 1934 issue of Spicy Detective.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

"Cry Hard Cry Fast" by John D. MacDonald (1955)

[For this week's Friday's Forgotten Books, I am reviewing John D. MacDonald's Cry Hard Cry Fast. It was originally published as Gold Medal #1739 in 1955. The edition I read was a reprint, Popular Library #6271 from 1958.]

John D. MacDonald wasn't kidding around when he titled a book Cry Hard Cry Fast (Gold Medal, 1955) – it’s a book that continually catches you off guard, and takes you to new and surprising, and often dark, places in every chapter. This book is a prime example of how noir writing is not only restricted to private detectives, dames, murderers, and dark rainy alleys. Cry Hard Cry Fast takes place on an average day in an average city, and its protagonists are ordinary citizens, and their tragedies could – and do – happen everyday. And perhaps that is what makes the book so haunting, and so impossible to put down.

MacDonald structures the novel in an original and innovative way. The opening sentence begins by foreshadowing a car crash. Each of the first six chapters takes the point-of-view of one of the cars involved in the accident and describes their lives leading up to the moment of impact. One man, distraught by the recent death of his wife, takes to the road hoping to get his life back together; another couple has gone on a second honeymoon in attempt to revive their failing marriage; a moody adolescent girl, bored with her provincial life and immature boyfriend, is forced on a family vacation; a pair of bank robbers are fleeing with $42,000 in the trunk and a blonde in the backseat – these are but a few of the characters involved in the crash. And each of their lives is just as desperate as the rest. They take to the road because they are dissatisfied with their lives, and see no escape from the routine of monotony and unhappiness.

Subsequent chapters are similarly self-contained narratives of characters that become involved in the master narrative of the highway accident. There is the tow-truck driver, sickened by the vulture-like nature of his competitors who prowl the highways waiting for death; the doctor who, discontented with his upper-class life, opened the local hospital; and various witnesses to the crash, some that helped and some that fled. MacDonald does an incredible job at packing everyone’s story into a few powerful pages. The characters each come to life in the space of mere sentences, and continue to live on well after their narrative has ended. Like ghosts unable to rest in peace, their despondent vestiges are present throughout.

Published almost a decade before the Travis McGee series began, Cry Hard Cry Fast is brimming with MacDonald’s characteristic perceptions and rich vocabulary. What would be nothing but a cliché in the hands of most writers becomes a fresh experience with MacDonald. His evocative description of sounds and lucid visions of the crash are particularly impressive. Among the most prolific of pulp writers, MacDonald completed no less than three novels and several short stories in 1955, and who knows how many other projects he was also working on simultaneously. Those looking to learn more about John D. MacDonald should head over to Mystery*File to read this insightful interview by Ed Gorman. Thrilling Detective also has an informative bio and an extensive bibliography that will make your jaw drop.

Picking my favorite quotes from Cry Hard Cry Fast was a joy. One could open to a random page and find an example of MacDonald’s stunning prose. Here are but a few examples for your enjoyment. Anyone that has favorite quotes or passages from any of his books and stories is encouraged to add them in the comments section.

“His childhood had been served, as a sentence is served, in that emotional wasteland of a home which should have been broken and was not – a home where hate is a voice beyond a closed door, where contempt is a long intercepted look, where violence is a palpable thing in the silent rooms.”

“He knew he needed sleep. His face felt granular. Every once in a while his eyes would swim and he’d have to shake his head. Twelve hours’ steady driving was about as much as a man could take.”

“Yet all accusations, all conflict was forgotten when his strong hands were here and here, when muscles bunched his back, when the sledge came down from the sky and struck the anvil and, with spark shower, burst it asunder.”

“The crash was like a great slow thick-throated coughing sound containing bright sharp fragments in abrupt frequencies. As the initial sound of the crash passed its greatest peak, yet before it had died away, the second crash built it back to yet a higher intensity. Then, in diminuendo came the lesser impacts, descending to the recognizability of clash of fenders, rip of white metal. The quake of the shock quivered the roadside trees. Meadow birds circled wildly, crying out.”

“The door burst open and she was hurled out. In the final moment before the blackness, she felt acute irritation with the formlessness, the messiness of it. This was destruction and waste, devoid of pattern and meaning. She would be helpless among strangers.”

“The false dawn had paled the east. A truck made a thin insect whine in the distance, coming closer. He stood and listened to it. It went by at last, trailing a long sonorous unending burp. Frazier ran his hands through his hair and shuddered.”

“It had started like a thunderstorm, and now it settled down to a long warm steady rain – tears without thought or reason. Just tears.”

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

"Mickey Spillane: Sex, Sadism and Scripture" by Mark Murphy

For all you Spillane fans out there, I've scanned an article called "Sex, Sadism and Scripture" by Mark Murphy that was published in True: The Man's Magazine (July 1952). Written shortly after the release of Kiss Me Deadly, the article examines the "Mike Hammer" phenomenon that was sweeping the country and racking up millions in sales - 10,395,716 at the time of the article. Also discussed are his childhood in Elizabeth, NJ and the East Flatbush neighborhood of Brooklyn, NY, his beginnings as a comic-book writer, and his gun collection and many other "manly" habits (after all, this is True: The Man's Magazine we are talking about).

Click on the images for high-resolution versions to either read or print out and keep for your collection. I've also included the front and back covers to the magazine as extra vintage treats.


Tuesday, February 3, 2009

The Books in My Life

Inspired by Pattinase’s list, “Twenty-Five Writers Who Have Most Influenced Me,” I sat down to mull over those writers who have had the biggest impact on the way I write and the way I read. In order that this didn’t turn into a mile-long list of my “favorite” writers, I stuck to just those few who have stayed with me the longest, and who left an indelible mark on my life. So—here they are, in alphabetical order, along with my favorite book of theirs.

1. Fredric Brown – Here Comes a Candle – A devilish imagination that never ceases to surprise me. A fiendish puppet master who maneuvers fate in the most illogical, ironic way, Brown crafts hallucinatory mysteries that terrify us and make us laugh.

2. Charles Bukowski – Ham on Rye – Real life without the bullshit. Poetry without a pretty veneer. Stories with guts.

3. Raymond Carver – Where I’m Calling From – Working class blues.

4. John Fante – Ask the Dust – Brutally honest about our hopes and dreams, and our failure to ever live up to them. A big influence on Bukowski. His language is stripped down and direct, but it is so full of emotion and feeling.

5. David Goodis – Somebody's Done For – The bleakest, most beautiful poetry I’ve encountered. At his best, his plots are but the briefest outlines – merely containers for his characters’ emotions and thoughts and anxieties and hopes.

6. Pauline Kael – I Lost It At the Movies – Lively, engaging, and sometimes enraging, she made me realize that there is more to criticism than “good” and “bad” – as the title of one of her books indicates, she taught me to look “deeper into movies.”

7. Jonathan Latimer – Solomon’s Vineyard – Guiltless amorality and pleasure, and a detective that cares nothing about the case or the young girl in danger. Marlowe’s white knight has turned into a perverse devil.

8. Phillip Lopate – Totally, Tenderly, Tragically – The opening essay, “Anticipating La Notte: The Heroic Age of Moviegoing,” is the most enlightening, personal writing I’ve ever read on film. It made me move back to New York to pursue my love of movies.

9. Henry Miller – Tropic of Cancer – Miller taught me to love language. He doesn’t write – he rhapsodizes.

10. Sanford Phippen – Kitchen Boy – I was lucky to have him as both my high school English teacher as well as neighbor, and he is still a dear friend of mine. He taught me the wealth of stories that happen in even the smallest town – and how often the best ones pass almost unnoticed.

11. J.D. Salinger – The Catcher in the Rye – I think everyone who has read this has found a little (or a lot) of Holden in themselves.

12. Mickey Spillane – Vengeance is Mine – I read Hammett, Chandler, and Cain first – but Spillane was my first noir love. Masterful control of language and punctuation. Evocative imagery, lurid action, and intoxicating poetry.

13. Harvey Swados – Nights in the Gardens of Brooklyn – Before Carver there was Swados – melancholic stories of middle-class minutiae.

14. Jim Thompson – The Killer Inside Me – Thompson takes us to a dark place that few even dare to acknowledge…

Feel free to share your own list or any thoughts on these writers in the comments section.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

"Madball" by Fredric Brown (Gold Medal, 1961)

Fredric Brown was one of the first crime novelists that I became a devoted fan of, accumulating and devouring anything he wrote that I could get my hands on. His sense of humor was like nothing I had ever encountered before, laden with sideshow strangeness, cosmic ironies, and that hardboiled cynicism that is the mark of a former journalist (which Brown was). But the more I read, the more extraordinary (and odd!) his writing became, and the more I valued and looked forward to his absurd nightmares – and the weirder the better!

With its combination of carnies and murder, Madball is pure Brown, and also one of his best novels. Originally published by Dell in 1953, Madball was later reprinted as Gold Medal #21132 in 1961. (It also appeared in a magazine as a condensed version titled “The Pickled Punks.”) The story concerns a traveling carnival and a secret that several people think only they know: somewhere on the fairground $42,000 in stolen bank money is hidden, and each of them want it. Brown allows each of his characters to narrate their own parts of the story. There is Mack Irby, the former grinder of an “unborn show” (which exhibits bottled human and animal fetuses) who stole the money and has returned to collect it; Dr. Magus, the alcoholic mystic who is afraid of his own crystal “madball” and its surprisingly prophetic powers; Dolly, who is scared of her knife-throwing, jealous husband; Sammy, a young escapee from a mental ward who has found a home as a carnival worker; and then there is “The Murderer,” as Brown refers to him…

Brown orchestrates all of these characters and more in a symphony of the bizarre as only Brown could conceive of. The carnival atmosphere, in particular, Brown describes in such evocative and intimate details that Anthony Boucher commented, “you’ll remember [it] more vividly than any you’ve attended.” There’s almost something scientific about the way he describes the various shows (particularly the “pickled punks” exhibition) and the colorful characters on the lot. The setting is a favorite for Brown, who also set one of his Ed and Am Hunter mysteries, The Dead Ringer, in a traveling carnival.

More than just giving us plot twists and surprise endings, Brown is able to continually knock the foundation out from under us at key moments. No sooner has he introduced a seemingly integral narrator than he has killed them off. And while, for most of the novel, all of the characters seem to exist in their own disparate stratospheres, as soon as one of them goes a little off course then the entire Madball universe collides in a cataclysmic explosion. Most importantly, though, is the sense of terror that Brown instills in the readers. Certainly much of Madball is humorous, however the characters’ fright is no laughing matter. Sammy, in particular, seems to be caught in a fragile world, with his worst nightmares always on the verge of turning into reality. And when Brown puts us in his mind, we too are subject to his vulnerable psychological and emotional condition.

Madball, like most of Fredric Brown’s novels, is currently out-of-print. Whether you are a long-time fan or someone curious to discover a new author, Madball is well worth the effort to track down. In the meantime, pick up a copy of his masterpiece Here Comes a Candle, currently available from Centipede Press in beautiful paperback edition that includes extra goodies from the author, including a short story and an essay. Also—Centipede list Madball as a forthcoming title, so support the independent publisher and show them there is an audience for more Fredric Brown titles!

Here are some of my favorite quotes from the book. I found it difficult to isolate a few sentences or phrases that could do justice to Brown’s ability as a writer. I tried my best to find some lines that struck me as indicative of his style. Though, the best thing would be to just read one of his books and revel in the joy that is “Fredric Brown” firsthand.

“Young lust and then experienced lechery, with a murder in between. All in all, quite a night.”

An example of Brown’s logical illogic (or is it illogical logic?): “Except for somewhat anachronistic spats, you might have taken him for a specialist in some highly remunerative branch of medicine, perhaps a top flight psychiatrist, or a college president. But the spats, and to a lesser degree the cane, marked him as none of these; no professor or doctor dares dress anachronistically lest his public assume that his ideas date back to the same eras as his dress. Obviously, then, Dr. Magus was a man of means for only the wealthy dare be eccentric and only the eccentric wear spats.”

And who else but Brown would quote the Gaelic word for whiskey: “Uisgebaugh forever.”

“Besides, the show must go on. Or must it? The carney could get along for one night without a mitt camp. And if he sobered up he’d realize how slim a chance actually he had of getting that money for himself. Whereas is he kept on drinking he could dream about it, even spend it in his imagination.”

“It had been daylight for several hours before the light in Dr. Magus’s eyes brought him near enough the threshold of consciousness to make him turn over and bury his face in the pillow. But the act of turning brought him across that threshold, unreturnably across. Moving his head had done it; movement had wakened the little monsters inside his skull and they had immediately picked up their pneumatic drills and started trying to drill their way out through his forehead and temples.”

“Out into the night, the lonely night bright with moonlight and dark with dread.”
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