Thursday, April 30, 2009

"77 Rue Paradis" by Gil Brewer (Gold Medal, 1954)

77 Rue Paradis (Gold Medal #448, 1954) may recall the title of Gil Brewer’s breakthrough novel 13 French Street (1951), but it is by no means a repeat of its predecessor. It is, at once, markedly different and unmistakably similar. Instead of the single-location, three-character narrative in which the major action is the steady crescendo of the main character’s psychological torment over repressed desires and mounting guilt, Brewer gives us a sprawling narrative of international intrigue with a considerably larger, more diverse cast of characters.

At the center is Frank Baron, an aeronautics engineer who is the victim of sabotage – but that’s not the way the rest of the world sees it. Instead, they see him as the enemy, and the numerous American soldiers who died because of his faulty aircrafts the victims. So Baron begins an international chase for the saboteur, which leads him to Marseilles, where the novel begins. Down and out, and flat broke, Baron thinks his search has come to an end – which is exactly when things really begin to start happening. Soon he finds himself caught between the French police and the international espionage agents who not only ruined his life and career, but have also kidnapped his daughter. And it looks like his only chance of saving her is to join the enemy and become the man the world thinks he is: a saboteur.

77 Rue Paradis certainly has an action-oriented plot when compared to 13 French Street, but for all the narrative differences there is one unalterable similarity: Gil Brewer, with his characteristic sympathy for ensnared protagonists worn down by guilt and self-doubt. And that’s really where the book shines. The intricately constructed (perhaps too much so) plot didn’t keep my eyes on the page. But Frank Baron sure did. The cold and detached businessman-like affections that united both the police and the spies didn’t wrench my gut until I was a shriveled, half-working human. Frank Baron did.

From the first line on the first page I opened to at random just now: “Baron was frightened. He knew he was doing the best he could, but the sense of fright and panic would not leave him.” Somehow I missed copying down this quote as I was reading the book, but glancing at it now, it seems to capture a sort of vulnerable privacy that has the power to mute all the chaos going on in the plot, and make it seem as though the whole world consists of nothing but this quiet moment paranoid hesitation.

The cover artwork, which vividly evokes the gritty atmosphere of the Brewer's prose, was done by James Meese. J. Kingston Pierce singled out Meese in one of his Killer Covers entries, and Kyle Katz has created a nice slideslow of several of Meese's covers here on Flickr. For the back cover, Gold Medal has used a photograph, which although a bit unusual for them, is a rather nice surprise.

I can safely say that there will be more Gil Brewer in my life in the near future. If you have any favorites or suggestions, please let me know in the comments section.

And now for a few favorite passages from the book, starting with the knock-you-on-your-ass opening line:

“The sensuous scarlet glow from the floor lamp in the cheaply furnished room seeped under the partially closed lids of Baron’s eyes, and hey lay rigidly on the bed, thinking it all through one more time with a kind of fevered restlessness.”

“Then somehow he knew she was gone. There were a few more spots he might try, but he felt it, a washing away of faith. Because he had so little faith in anything.”

“He fished a blue silk handkerchief from his side trouser pocket and blew his nose with a kind of fiendish gusto.”

“Humor is a precious thing. Without it a man is doomed from the start.”

“The only comfort he discovered in his wrath of calamity was the clean, roomy sensation of new socks in well-fitting shoes.”

“It came into him like a kind of wisp of smoke, like a new kind of soul, this bright fresh vital fear.”

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Stories for Sunday: Brazill, Brown, and Rawson

One degree shy of 90 here in Brooklyn this morning - perfect weather for murder, counterfeiting, and arson - right? Well, the protagonists in these three stories don't fare so well as they hoped. So, grab a cold drink, turn on the fan (or AC, if you're lucky enough), and enjoy the stories.

1) "In the Shower, Thinking" by Keith Rawson. Originally published at A Twist of Noir, Rawson's story was the winner of their March contest - and rightfully so. A couple of guys from the office plot to drive a co-worker "postal" in attempt to gather fame and fortune for themselves. But driving a man crazy is hard work, and insanity can be rather contagious...

2) "This Old House" by Paul D. Brazill. The only thing better than finding a writer you like is to find one so prolific as Brazill. His latest, published at Thrillers Killers 'n' Chillers, follows a man down on his luck whose bright idea - burning down the house - isn't as uplifting as he hoped.

And finally, a classic:

3) "Don't Look Behind You" by Fredric Brown. A small-time printer hooks up with a con-artist to start a counterfeiting operation. Things go awry, and both the police and his irate cohorts are after the phony plates - only the printer has something else on his mind: revenge. Originally published in the May 1947 issue of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine.

Image courtesy of Galactic Central.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

"Spring Fire" by Vin Packer/Marijane Meaker (Gold Medal, 1952)

“A story once told in whispers now frankly, honestly written,” advertises the original Gold Medal edition of Vin Packer’s Spring Fire, first published in 1952. With a tagline promising scandal and equally lurid cover art by Barye Phillips showing two young women in revealing nightgowns seated on rumpled purple bedsheets, initial readers certainly got what they paid for. For some, it was a tale of forbidden love between two young college girls, naïve freshman Susan “Mitch” Mitchell and campus beauty queen Leda Taylor, and their attempts to come to terms with their “improper” relationship and keep it hidden from society.

Other readers, however, felt liberated by its content: “When the book came out I got tons of mail from female readers who were so delighted to read a lesbian novel,” the author revealed in Queerty. “Gold Medal had boxes of mail waiting for me when I went in one day. Of course, my family didn't know about it. I would have gotten flack if they had.” Her family didn’t know about it because “Vin Packer” was a pseudonym for Marijane Meaker, one of many that the author would use throughout her career (others include M.E. Kerr, attached to young adult fiction, and Ann Aldrich, used for non-fiction writing).

Fifty-seven years later, what is striking about the book is not how “scandalous” Spring Fire is, but how sensitive and sincere Packer’s writing can be. While American society has certainly changed since 1952, certain things seem to be the same: young kids still run off to college, uncertain of who they really are. They go to escape mom and dad and the hometowns that try and box them in. They go to parties, they drink too much, and certain things happen that shouldn’t. Some are more naïve than they wish to admit; others have more experience than someone their age should. Nor is it only the girls who are struggling with their sexual identity – the boys have their fair share of issues, including rage and insecurity.

Everyone is trying to fit in. And they’d do most anything to achieve it.

Three-quarters of the way through the book, however, there is a noticeable shift in not only the story, but also the writing, as though the author no longer believes in what she is writing. Mitch and Leda’s relationship is discovered, and they are at the mercy of society’s unforgiving and highly prejudiced scrutiny. The conclusion of the story is in complete alignment with the conservative mores at the time, a compromise necessary in order to have the book published at the time. Still, Packer managed to sneak in some subversive elements into the ending. In her essay “From Cold War Lesbian Pulp to Contemporary Young Adult Novels: Vin Packer’s Spring Fire, M. E. Kerr’s Deliver Us from Evie, and Marijane Meaker’s Fight against Fifties Homophobia,” Michelle Ann Abate points out that, “In a final detail that calls further attention to the absurdity of [the ending], Mitch is presented as happily dating a young man with the symbolic name Lucifer in the closing pages of the novel.” A “happy” ending, indeed.

Packer’s work has begun to receive more attention in recent years, which has brought several of her novels back into print. Spring Fire is available from Cleis Press, and Stark House Press has releases several two-fers. Marijane Meaker also has a website setup for her alias M.E. Kerr. Packer also has a great short story, “Round Heels,” in Megan Abbott’s anthology A Hell of a Woman, available here from Busted Flush Press.

And now for a few excerpts:

“For a long time she was down in the mire of pitch black and the quicksand sucking her in and her whole head dizzy and the pain. Then it was over and she could feel him kneeling beside her…”

“Monday night was chapter-meeting night in Greek town, and there was a reverent hush in the neighborhood. Decisions and rules and amendments to rules were being developed throughout the area, and it was like a grand corporation manufacturing a variety of brands, all tested, all ready to compete with one another.”

“The words went on endlessly, like a radio playing in a room when you do not listen constantly, but now and then, catching illusive scraps of the whole meaning, the crumbs of an endless dialogue.”

“There’s no simplicity left in modern living.”

“It was like picking up a book and reading the things the main character did and said and his description and thinking vaguely, at first, Why, I’m that way a little. Then more, until the realization comes like a giant boulder down the hill and crashes into you, pulverizing you with the knowledge that this is you, this character.”

Monday, April 20, 2009

Movies for Monday: "The Amsterdam Kill" (1977)

Robert Mitchum was in complete agreement with critics about his 1977 feature The Amsterdam Kill: they all hated it. And while it hardly holds a candle to the elegant craftsmanship of Out of the Past or The Night of the Hunter, I can’t deny that I thoroughly enjoyed the grimy atmosphere of The Amsterdam Kill. Predictable at most every step, it shows how even the most archetypical scenario can still be compelling.

Mitchum plays Quinlan, a former agent for the Drug Enforcement Agency who was dismissed for his own drug habits. Called out of retirement by a Chinese drug lord who wants to broker a deal with the government that would net him a passport and a large quantity of cash, Quinlan heads to Hong Kong to arrange everything. But when the raids turn up nothing, Quinlan begins to suspect that there is a leak in the DEA. Meanwhile, the DEA doubts Quinlan’s motives, and sends agent Leslie Nielsen to investigate his mysterious employer.

According Lee Server’s biography Baby I Don’t Care, the 60-year-old Mitchum was extremely irritated over the poorly organized production and having to do his own stunts. So severe was the enmity of the set that Mitchum seriously feared that the crew was taking out extra insurance on him and planning to kill him off. In Mitchum’s own words, “[The canals] are filthy, all those houseboats spewing out their garbage. And there I am, up to my neck in it… Can you see Elizabeth Taylor or Cary Grant in a canal? Or Victor Mature? Out of the question. He wouldn’t even get on a horse unless it was bolted to the ground. But me, with my shining heart, in I go…”

Still. he brings a magnetic presence to the role. Even New York Times film critic Janet Maslin had to admit as much: “This is the flimsiest movie Mr. Mitchum has made in some time, but for that very reason his performance is particularly arresting,” Maslin wrote. “There's something impressive about the imperturbability with which he marches through the most potentially embarrassing situations.”

Mitchum had an immutable charisma that was completely his own, and The Amsterdam Kill is evidence of how, even despite his disinterest, he was still able to elevate a mediocre, clichéd script into an entertaining night at the movies.

Courtesy of YouTube, here is the opening clip to the film, which was directed by Robert Clouse of Enter the Dragon fame.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Stories for Sunday: John L. Benton's "License to Hell" and "No Blood"

Perusing PulpGen for this week’s Stories for Sunday I took a chance on an author I had never heard of before – John L. Benton. Among the many stories on the site were two pieces of flash fiction, “License to Hell” (Popular Detective, December 1935) and “No Blood” (Popular Detective, January 1936). Both are savage stories of killers without mercy. Hardboiled to the core, and with a cruel sense of irony, Benton doesn’t allow anyone a happy ending. In a single page, he packs in a bleak worldview that is unmistakably noir.

A brief synopsis and quote for each story:

“License to Hell”
A wanted killer takes to the lam and forces a reformed crook to aid in his escape.
“Automatic gripped in gaunt hand, “Cop-Killer” Merkle jabbed its muzzle hard against the whimpering man before him. “

“No Blood”
Two siblings find themselves at opposite ends of the law: one is a ruthless criminal, the other a pitiless detective.
“His brother lay sleeping in the next room—a sleep from which he would never awaken, Graemlein was grimly resolved. He went carefully into the bedroom. In his hand he held the hypodermic syringe filled with a pale, deadly fluid of his own concoction.”

There seems to be scant information on Benton either in print or on the internet – and what little I could find is certainly conflicting. “John L. Benton” seems to have been the pseudonym for several different authors, all writing mystery fiction during the 1930s and 1940s. (An customer seems to have also been confused and left their trail of information in a review here.)

According to Steve Trussel’s a.k.a., Benton is one of many names used by Norman A. Danberg (1906-1995). Magic Dragon Memorabilia confirms this information, and has a short bio that states he attended college at Columbia University, New York University, and Northwestern University, and married a Dorothy Daniels in 1937. They also mention that he wrote 61 novels and hundreds of stories, though no particular titles are mentioned.

Phil Stephensen-Payne’s Galactic Central Publications has two listings for Benton. One is for Danberg (whom apparently also went by Norman Daniels) – though his birth date is listed as 1905, and not a year later as by Trussel. Elsewhere on the site, “John L. Benton” is credited as a house name used by multiple authors, none of whom are listed. Both bibliographies list different mystery stories being published during the same period of time, and in similar publications (such as G-Men Detective), but none of the stories appear on both lists.

Confused by this information, I dropped by my favorite local bookstore, Partners and Crime, where Steve consulted Allen J. Hubin’s Crime Fiction: A Comprehensive Bibliography. “John L. Benton” there is listed as the pseudonym for Thomas Albert Curry (1900-1976), who also published under the names Albert Jeffers and Stephan Duane. A post on Mystery*File about Gateway Books seconds this connection between Benton and Curry. Coincidentally, they also list “Norman Daniels” as a writer for this company, and give his penname as “William Dale,” which was also listed by both Trussel and Magic Dragon. Bill Pronzini has posted covers to a handful of Gateway titles online, including two novels by Benton – The Art Treasure Murders (1940) and Talent for Murder (1942).

So, who was this John L. Benton who wrote these stories? While I can’t say for sure, one thing is certain: these two stories are classic examples of high-quality hardboiled fiction.

And special thanks to Galactic Central Publishing for providing the images for both issues of Popular Detective. Be sure to browse their incredible archive here.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Six Sentences: "Colder Nights"

I just had a second piece of flash fiction published over at Six Sentences. This one is titled, "Colder Nights." It's an atmospheric look at one winter night here in New York City.

Thanks for reading, and hope you enjoy it.

"Shadow at Noon" by Harry White/Harry Whittington (Pyramid Books, 1955)

As if the thinly veiled pseudonym wasn’t enough of a hint, the author bio for Shadow at Noon (Pyramid Books #169, 1955) makes it plain who the real writer is: “Harry White is one of the names used by a well-known western writer. Besides his many successful westerns he is also the author of novels of mystery, suspense and adventure.” You’ve probably guessed it by now, but the answer is Harry Whittington.

Whittington brings the same trenchant prose and dynamic yet concise plotting that characterized Gold Medal classics like Ticket to Hell to the Wild West of Shadow at Noon. Like Howard Hawks’ openings to both Rio Bravo and El Dorado, Whittington opens with a cinematic bang and forgoes any lengthy introduction to the character. Thrown headfirst into their world, we come to know them through high-pressure, decisive situations that show their true selves.

As Shadow at Noon begins, Jeff Clane is in a semi-conscious state, lost in a delirium of pain as a stranger is removing a bullet from his gut. Memories come in and out of focus: of meeting a girl who turns out to be the wrong one for him; of running from her trigger-happy suitor; of being set-up to die in a rigged duel; of somehow making it out alive, only to be arrested and falsely accused of murder; and of somehow escaping, but with a bounty hunter hot on his trail the whole way.

In his review of the book, esteemed author James Reasoner wrote that, “Whittington puts his characters through both emotional torment and physical torture.” The opening scene is indicative of Whittington’s ability to not only precisely capture a character’s psychology, but to imbue his words with the necessary emotional weight and immediacy to make the reader live the scene.

Upon awakening, Clane finds himself in the care of a ranch family that has their own troubles. It seems someone has rolled into town and is trying to run local farmers off the land that they settled and cultivated. Clane then finds himself torn between proving his own innocence and helping those who saved his life. He suffers from this desolation caused by the futility of his own personal quest, as well as the knowledge that he is putting all the farmers and their families at risk. He sees justice nowhere, and no longer believes in it. It’s the anxiety of living in a world that has is not immoral, but in which corrupt morals reign supreme.

Using only the barest of plot elements, Whittington has filed down this story to its core: a stark, emotionally driven novel of revenge and desperation. Many of Whittington’s noir themes have seeped into this Western, particularly the innocent man on the run, as well as the protagonist who must wrestle with his own violent tendencies. With breakneck pacing and vigorous action scenes, Shadow at Noon is an excellent example of Whittington’s unmistakable craftsmanship.

A taste of Whittington’s prose:

“He lay passively between painful sleep and the agony of waking. He was aware of a desperate sense of urgency with the sudden realization that there was no longer any motion of his horse under him.”

“From her white dress he knew she was a waitress. From the look in her eyes he knew all the rest he needed to know about her.”

“Nothing had ever happened in his life to make him believe in anything.”

“A disturbed chicken clucked once.”

“Without faith in something, there was only one thing to do, go back in that cabin and murder Dardac.”

“It was the loneliness, the singleness of purpose, the starting on a trail and going through hell, but never turning back.”

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

"Night Squad" by David Goodis (Gold Medal, 1961)

[Note: Night Squad is available to read online for free courtesy of Munseys.]

Published by Gold Medal in 1961, Night Squad was the second-to-last novel David Goodis wrote, and the last one he saw published in his lifetime. As the book begins, Corey Bradford is stumbling through a bar, the personification of a persona non grata. No one speaks to him, no one pays him any attention – they don’t even care enough to kick him out. He was a police officer who demanded graft from everyone in the neighborhood and got caught. Fate hadn’t conspired against him, nor was there any devious plotting by sinister forcers or dark-hearted dames. Like many of Goodis’ protagonists, Corey was responsible for his own downfall, and he has no pity or remorse for what he did. He recognizes he’s worthless, and can’t blame the world for thinking the same of him.

He’s nothing but a drunken nobody – until a fortuitous night when he jumps two gunmen and saves the life of a big-shot gangster, Walter Grogan. Walter hires Corey to find out who hired the gunmen. That same night, the police knock on Corey’s door – not to arrest him, but to hire him to help put Walter Grogan behind bars. Is this providence playing a nasty trick on Corey? No, instead this dilemma is just the manifestation of Corey’s own split desires. One the one hand, he wants to live up to the legacy of his father, as true-blue an officer that ever pounded the pavement. On the other hand, there is the futility of trying to clean up the streets, and the knowledge that dirty money will always pass through someone’s hands, so why not his own?

Why not, indeed?

And this is the question that Corey grapples with until the final page of the book. This temptation towards corruption is one of the archetypical noir underpinnings – often it appears as the alluring femme fatale, who drags a seemingly innocent protagonist into a web of criminality and acts as an impetus for him to explore his darkest desires. And while the femme fatale is a reoccurring type in Goodis’ novels, in Night Squad she plays a much more peripheral role. Corey’s corruption comes from within.

This seems to me one of the significant traits of the book. Whereas in earlier novels such as Dark Passage and Nightfall the protagonists suffered more than their fair share of bad luck, it is circumstance that brought out their change in character. Not so in Night Squad – Corey’s decisions are, if not clear-headed, at least deliberate. Goodis seems to have lost faith in his characters by this point in his career. Good intentions mean little anymore. And even though Goodis may try and force some sort of redemption, no one seems to be particularly convinced, least of all the writer.

At the time of the novel’s release, Anthony Boucher wrote in The New York Times, “The writing is more ponderous than Goodis’ best, and the moral thinking confusingly muzzy.” An astute critic, Boucher may not be enthusiastic about the book, but he is certainly perceptive. “Muzzy” is the right word for a novel that wants to believe in salvation but ultimately fails. And with a sraight-forward plot that takes care of itself very neatly, Goodis is free to “ponder” the uncertainties of his protagonist, the moral confusions that have haunted his novels from first to last.

The back of the original Gold Medal edition proclaims in bold, yellow capital letters, “THE LONLIEST MAN ON EARTH.” After reading the novel, I’m not sure whether they’re talking about Corey Bradford or David Goodis. It’s hard to think of a more fitting description for either the novel or his life.

As always, a few quotes…

“Yet even so, the grin was somewhat forced and the shrug was more or less faked. Under it, he squirmed and twisted as though trying to pull free from hard gripping shackles.”

“The Swamp was a labyrinth of alleys, and with an excessive number of oversized cats. The cats were very rugged, but every now and then a loner would be jumped by a pack of rats, and that would be the end of him.”

“That’s how it ended, boy. That’s what finally happened to your father, the good one, the clean one, the honest policeman. The rats got to him and he was meat for their bellies. You understand now why I gotta have the wine?”

“It gets to a point where it just don’t matter.”

“A cop is always a cop—until they take the badge away. Then he is what he is.”

Monday, April 13, 2009

"Devil's Garden" by Ace Atkins (Putnam, 2009)

Moviegoers have had a long, ardent, and arduous relationship with movie stars. At first the players were just faces on screen – objects captured by the camera. Soon they became known by their respective film company, such as “The Biograph Girl.” Companies were reluctant to put a name to a face, less the actor gain more prominence and popularity than the studio. But by the second decade of the twentieth century, names like Mary Pickford began gracing the screen, as well as also posters and magazines. An image of purity – and audiences adopted her as a patron saint of cinema. The bond between moviegoer and movie star grew more intimate, intense. The faces on the screen became larger than life, god-like, almost. A more perfect version of your or I. The mysterious death of young starlet Olive Thomas while on vacation Paris in 1920 was the first casualty – not only did it prove the vulnerability of these projected “idols,” but raised questions about their life off the screen. Was it suicide? Murder? What really happened behind closed doors?

In 1921, the doors were busted wide open when actress Virginia Rappe attended a party in San Francisco thrown by Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle and wound up dead. The debauchery and perversity once kept behind closed doors was now on the front pages of newspapers across the country.

Reading Ace Atikins’ meticulously researched Devil’s Garden is to experience all the joy and excitement of a watching a pristine restoration of a silent film – he sheds light on previously unknown areas of history, and pulls into focus some of the most lingering questions of film history. Why was Virgina Rappe at the party? Why was the autopsy conducted without proper authorization? Why was she at the party? What interaction did she have with Fatty?

History is almost too good to be true – but, thankfully, it is. The Pinkerton detective assigned to investigate Arbuckle’s case was none other than Dashiell Hammett. This coincidence concerning the master of detective fiction is as fortuitous as it is potentially disastrous. To his credit, Atkins doesn’t rest on readers’ preconceptions of Hammett “the writer,” and instead crafts a living and breathing portrait of a man grown contemptuous of his job, his family, and the world around him. Atkins gives the same amount of intimate consideration to all of the other personalities in the novel – Arbuckle, William Randolph Hearst, and Marion Davies (to name just a few) come off as convincingly realistic, and not obvious caricatures of celebrities.

The events of history may have already been determined, but it is the writer’s task to not only reconstruct them, but to imbue them with the same propulsive energy that sparked them initially. And this is exactly what Atkins gets right. Raymond Chandler famously wrote, “Hammett gave murder back to the kind of people that commit it for reasons, not just to provide a corpse.” Reading Devil’s Garden, it seems as if Atkins took this as his credo, as every action and inaction, every speech and silence, carries both urgency and conviction.

As always, a few of my favorite lines from Devil’s Garden.

“The air was thin and cold, and the only sound came from electric fans blowing away the heat from the stage lights. But there was a feel to the set, the props became real in shadow, and, in the camera’s eye, everything came into focus.”

“You’re only somebody if you get your picture made and people pay a nickel to take a look. The rest of us are just deadbeats.”

“Just then, the fox coat dropped to the floor at the feet of the long-legged woman and a 12-gauge shotgun appeared in her delicate hands, which slammed out two cartridges into the plaster ceiling, killing the music and cuing the screams.”

“The old women spat on him and whispered, murmured, sound like the summer buzzing of insects high in the trees.”

“He twirled the end of his mustaches like a one-reel villain.”

“I like a city where you can walk and get to know the neighborhoods and back alleys. A real city you can know on your feet.”

“I only wanted to touch her… But when I touched the light, the light from the projector, I felt nothing at all, not even warmth. Why is that?”

Thursday, April 9, 2009

"Three Gun Terry" by Carroll John Daly (Black Mask, May 15, 1923)

Carroll John Daly’s short story “Three Gun Terry” is credited as being the first hardboiled mystery. It was published in the May 15th, 1923 issue of Black Mask, several months prior to Dashiell Hammett’s first Continental Op story. I came across the story in William F. Nolan’s The Black Mask Boys: Masters in the Hard-Boiled School of Detective Fiction (William Morrow and Company, 1985), an excellent anthology that includes not only Daly, but also Hammett, Chandler, Erle Stanley Gardner, Horace McCoy, Frederick Nebel, Raoul Whitfield, and Paul Cain.

Daly’s reputation seems to have suffered the most from that original core of writers. Nolan makes no bones about his criticisms against Daly: “The writing was impossibly crude, the plotting labored and ridiculous…” Nolan’s complaints don’t end there: “His dialogue was impossibly stilted…Yet despite all this, Carroll John Daly stands, historically, as the father of the hard-boiled private eye.” In fact, the only standout praise for Daly that I can think of is from Mickey Spillane, who openly acknowledged his debt of gratitude to his pulp predecessor.

Daly’s historical importance and critical dismissal has always made me curious about him. Previously I had read The Man in the Shadows (1928), which was quite enjoyable and, while far from a masterpiece, was certainly not embarrassing. I have several other novels sitting on my shelf waiting to be read – so, in the meantime, I decided to go back to Daly’s roots and read the famed beginning of it all.

The opening of “Three Gun Terry” reads almost like a manifesto. “My life is my own, and the opinions of others don’t interest me, so don’t form any, or if you do, keep them to yourself. If you want to sneer at my tactics, why go ahead, but do it behind the pages—you’ll find that healthier.” It is as much an introduction to the main character, Terry Mack, as it is a warning to the reader.

As the story begins, business is slow, and Terry Mack is stalking the streets of New York looking for trouble – which means work for him. Purely a business man, he states his terms plainly: “Fifty dollars a day, and five hundred bonus when I deliver the goods…And for every man I croak—mind you, I ain’t a killer, but sometimes a chap’s got to turn a gun—I get two hundred dollars flat.” And when comes across several men chasing a woman down a dark street, he seems to have found his job.

Jumping onto the side of the car, he rides alongside the kidnappers all the way to the Bronx where he takes back the girl at gunpoint and returns her home. He is hired by her uncle to help find a missing scientific formula that is worth a considerable sum of money. Terry signs on, but when he shows up the next day to begin work, he finds that the formula has suddenly reappeared, and he is offered a large sum of money to forget the whole thing. Terry takes the money, of course, but he hasn’t forgotten anything - least of all the man hiding behind the curtains with a gun…

The archetypes are all set to go in this story: rogue hero neither on the side of the law nor against it, streetwise and with a strong enough reputation that he not only has connections to the underworld, but that they also know enough not to cross him. The plotting is swift, with action and violence a plenty, and even a beautiful dame thrown in the mix. All in all? It’s a solid story, one worth revisiting in the future.

Still, parts of the story don’t hold up as well as others, particularly the narration. Daly makes it painfully clear that he is speaking to “you, the reader.” It almost feels as though the narrator is bragging at a bar, emphasizing his quick draw and deadly aim. Nolan is also right that sometimes Daly’s prose can feel clumsy and imprecise. Yet at some moments, there is a ferociousness that still comes through some eighty-six years later.

I am looking forward to reading more of Carroll John Daly, and will be sure to blog about it in the near future. If you’re read Daly before, please chime in and leave a comment, I’m curious as to what other readers think of him.

Also—many thanks to Phil Stephensen-Payne and his Galactic Central site, which houses a great archive of Black Mask cover scans. Drop by and enjoying browsing!

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

"Homicide Sanitarium" by Fredric Brown (Dennis McMillan, 1984)

I’ve already written about Fredric Brown several times on this blog before, so before I launch into my own enthusiastic review, let me begin by quoting some names you might recognize. Donald Westlake said, “Fredric Brown had one of the eeriest and most fascinating minds of his time…he consistently saw new visions of strangeness and fear, or new ways of seeing the old. Every day was the day of the Jabberwock in that fertile imagination,” while Bill Pronzini simply stated, “Fredric Brown was one of the best storyteller of his time.”

It’s hard for me to top this praise, except to say that I am continually delighted to be reminded of the boundlessness of Brown’s creativity. “Twist endings” are, on their own, an expected cliché – but Brown’s twists are as twisted as his deviant characters, and as otherworldly as the purple monsters that stalk his sci-fi masterpiece What Mad Universe. But whether writing sci-fi or, in this case, mystery fiction, Brown's fiendish humor is unparalleled.

Homicide Sanitarium, the first volume in Dennis McMillan’s The Fredric Brown Pulp Detective Series, was originally published in 1984, with a second printing in 1987. Now out-of-print (though used copies can be found online at a reasonable price, though subsequent McMillan’s compilations can be quite pricey), Homicide Sanitarium collects seven short stories that are all excellent examples of the author’s style and capability.

Here’s a brief rundown of the stories included, as well as their original publication information and a favorite quote from each.

“Red-Hot and Hunted” (Detective Tales, November 1948)
“Is this a bad joke, Adrian, or is he…crazy?”

How far would an actor go to get a part? What are you to say when one calls you up to audition for a role and calmly confesses to murdering his wife?

“The Spherical Ghoul” (Thrilling Mystery, January 1943)
“I had no premonition of horror to come. When I reported to work that evening I had not the faintest inkling that I faced anything more startling than another quiet night on a snap job.”
A student working the night shift at the coroner’s receives an unpleasant shock when he discovers someone has mangled the unidentified corpse beyond recognition. But the door was locked, there was no sign of forced entry, and no one entered the building all night…

“Homicide Sanitarium” (Thrilling Detective, May 1941)
“Why, I wondered, in the name of sanity or insanity, had someone put that loaded tommy gun in my room?”

A detective takes an undercover job in an asylum to locate a missing killer.

“The Moon for a Nickel” (Street & Smith’s Detective Story Magazine, March 1938)
“Brakes screeched. A gun barked and a bullet buzzed past his left ear like an angry hornet.”

Brown’s first published story is a clever and charming tale of a stargazer whose telescope witnesses something it wasn’t supposed to.

“Suite for Flute and Tommy-gun” (Street & Smith’s Detective Story Magazine, June 1942)
“The flute, in the middle of a high note, seeming to give an almost humanly discordant gasp before it went silent.”

One of Brown’s unique gifts is to take an impossible-seeming title and make it possible. A flute-playing bank manager gets gunned down in the middle of rehearsal.

“The Cat from Siam” (Popular Detective, September 1949)
“And the cat, backing away from him, was shrinking to her real size, getting smaller, her claws still scraping the cement as she backed away.”

The stand-out story of the collection is a tense thriller about a university student, his professor, the professor’s daughter he is in love with, and a crazed lab technician on the loose with a gun. Brown’s prowess for psychological horror is on full display.

“Listen to the Mocking Bird” (G-Man Detective, November 1941)
“It’s a mocking bird. And it crochets.”
A performer’s unmatched ability for birdcalls gets him in trouble when witnesses hear his characteristic vocal abilities coming from the dead man’s room.

Monday, April 6, 2009

"You Play the Black and the Red Comes Up" by Eric Knight (Richard Hallas) (Black Lizard, 1986)

It’s a fitting irony that one of the great American hardboiled novels should be written by a British writer, and that after committing to paper the ceaseless corruption of the human soul and the perverse surreality of the American landscape he would go on to write about the earnest love between a boy and his collie. The writer is Eric Knight, the dog is Lassie, and hard-hitting, Depression-era noir? You Play the Black and the Red Comes Up.

Originally published in 1938 under the name Richard Hallas, You Play the Black and the Red Comes Up destroys its main character’s sense of security in the very first line. Dick’s wife, Lois, has taken their child away from “this lousy Oklahoma mining town” and off to California to make her dreams come true. But noir isn’t a world where dreams come true – only nightmares do. It’s only fitting that Dick and Lois ran a diner – an iconic American establishment for the lost, the forgotten, and the lonely. For now Dick is just like one of his customers, and he hops a late-night freight to go in search of his family. “You could see the glow of the smelters a long way off,” he says of his final, fleeting glimpse of home. And as those fires disappear in the night, Dick approaches an even more infernal destination: the arid desert climates send Dick into delirium, culminating with the California sun and a water spigot offering false promises of relief and salvation.

Penniless, friendless, and starving, Dick signs on to a small-time con that winds-up getting him in big-time trouble. The cops are after him for murder and larceny, his new friends are involving him in a religious cult scam that grows larger with every passing day, and the goal of finding his family fades further and further into the past.

While touching on several noir cornerstones (heck, even its title embodies one of the seminal noir tropes of cosmic bad luck), You Play the Black and the Red Comes Up is certainly atypical in many regards. The plot hinges not on one central “mystery” but on a perpetually expanding web of immorality, at which Dick is the center. In his highly perceptive essay on the novel, Woody Haut wrote that, “Knight’s book was neither a whodunit nor a detective novel, but was anthropological and political in scope. While eschewing Chandler’s wisecracking artificiality and cynicism, You Play the Black... contains a playfulness noticeably absent in the work of Cain and McCoy.” Dick is an American everyman, and the westward journey his own Manifest Destiny that reveals a continent of debased morality, and his own complicity in the plague.

One of the most interesting things about the book is its ending, which makes a 180-degree turn from nightmare to fantasy without jettisoning its atmosphere of disconcerting unreality. It reminds particularly of F.W. Murnau’s film The Last Laugh (1924), in which the film’s sole intertitle admits that the real ending of the story is too depressing, therefore offering this “alternate” ending which is happy, although unlikely. Knight seems to be doing the same thing in You Play the Black and the Red Comes Up – even Dick is baffled at how things turn out. Allan Guthrie hit it on the nose by saying, “It is just brilliant, even if we don't really know if it is a parody or not. Frankly, I don't care. It's great!”

As always, a few quotes from the book…

“How can you bear it? Don’t you want to clench your fist and smash life in the face, beat its inane illogicalities to a pulp?”

“She started in, and I looked way down the beach. There was no one around at all. It was so lonesome the seagulls were sitting on the sand.”

“That’s what I can’t stand. It’s all too pat. It’s like a Hays-office ending to a movie plot. And it shouldn’t be. It should be illogical, unbalanced, bravely strong. I wanted it like that. And now even life is trite.”

“I lay there, trying not to move, and kept chewing my thumb to get my mouth wet; but it was no good and I could feel my throat dry and cracking far back down my gullet and my lips were split right open.”

“When you don’t feel anything you must be dead. And that’s the way I am now. I feel like I’m dead.”
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