Sunday, June 21, 2009

Stories for Sunday: "Hide-Away" by H.A. DeRosso (Triple Detective, Summer 1954)

Since reading H.A. DeRosso’s bleak Western .44, I’ve been on the hunt for more of his writing. Recently I came across his story “Hide-Away,” which was published in the Summer 1954 issue of Triple Detective. Much like .44, “Hide-Away” is fueled by a disenchantment with the way of the gun, but instead of a contract killer, the protagonist is a Private Detective hired to track down a former employee of his who ran away with a young girl who he was supposed to find and bring home.

A sense of self-hate and utter regret runs deep throughout the story, and often moments of action are preceded with introspective bits like this: “Reluctance clogged Carson’s throat. He had never done anything he disliked more than what he was doing now.” By the end, even the hero doesn’t feel so heroic anymore, and he’s not sure which is worse: that he destroyed a vision of happiness, or the discovery that such bliss was only built on lies and violence. For this detective, tomorrow promises only another day, another case, and with no salvation in sight.

Here’s a sample of the story:

His eyes glared at Carson. “You’re leaving her alone, Will.”

Carson’s voice hardened. “You know me better than that. Art. You worked for me long enough to know that when I take on a job I finish it.”

“This is one job you won’t finish,” said Hunt, reaching for his hip pocket.

Read H.A. DeRosso’s “Hide-Away” here at PulpGen.

Cover Images courtesy of Galactic Central.

Friday, June 19, 2009

"On Crime Writing" by Ross Macdonald (Yes!/Capra, 1973)

Reflections on writing aren't always as insightful or helpful as we’d like them to be – except when it’s Ross Macdonald/Kenneth Millar doling out the wisdom. Released as a chapbook by Yes! and Capra presses in July 1973, On Crime Writing is a priceless glimpse into the mind of one of crime fiction’s legendary writers. Macdonald divides the book into two sections: “The Writer as Detective Hero” analyzes the genre from Poe to Doyle, and then makes the leap to Hammett and Chandler – undeniably four of the most foundational authors of the genre; and “Writing the Galton Case” is a look at the mind of a writer as he struggles through drafts and his memory to put together a coherent novel.

There’s a stupefying clarity and originality to Macdonald’s prose. Even when writing about four of the most-written-about writers of crime fiction, he never feels like he’s re-treading old ground or rehashing accepted truisms. He dissects Chandler and puts him back together again like few other critics ever have, and his praises and criticisms are equally discerning. And as far as his own writing, he doesn’t shy away from his own problems, or the many dead ends he encountered in trying to put together a character or story. “Inspirational” would be the wrong word to describe this book, as though it contained some sort of “magical spirit.” Instead, it’s a book of experience by one of the most qualified in the field. And that is something far, far more valuable.

And now for some of Macdonald’s wisdom:

“The nightmare can’t be explained away, and persists in the teeth of reason. An unstable balance between reason and more primitive human qualities is characteristic of the detective story. For both writer and reader it is an imaginative arena where such conflicts can be worked out safely, under artistic controls.”

“At the roaring heart of Chandler’s maze there is a horror which even at the end of his least evasive novel remains unspeakable.”

“Chandler described a good plot as one that made for good scenes, as if the parts were greater than the whole. I see plot as a vehicle of meaning. It should be as complex as contemporary life, but balanced enough to say true things about it.”

“The character holding the pen has to wrestle and conspire with the one taking shape on paper, extracting a vision of the self from internal darkness – a self dying into fiction as it comes to birth.”

“The plans for a detective novel in the making are less like blueprints than like travel notes set down as you once revisited a city. The city had changed since you saw it last. It keeps changing around you. Some of the people you knew there have changed their names. Some of them wear disguises.”

[Macdonald, Ross. On Crime Writing. Cover photograph: Tim Crawford. Cover drawing: Kathleen Mackintosh. Yes! Capra Chapbook, number 11. Santa Barbara: Capra Press, 1973. 45 pages.]

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Luís Miguel Queirós on Crime Fiction in Portugal and the Cover Art of Roberto Araújo

The Internet can yield wonderful surprises sometimes – such as last week, when I received an email from Luís Miguel Queirós regarding a previous post I had written on Craig Rice. A journalist from Portugal, Miguel is not only an avid fan of Craig Rice (and crime fiction in general), but he also helped republish Rice’s Home Sweet Homicide and many other books with Público. According to Miguel, “Público, the newspaper where I work, published the series in 2005. It had 20 titles and they were sold with the newspaper (one per week, from June 2005 till November 2005).”

He also sent me a wonderful gift: a beautiful scanned image of a vintage Portuguese paperback edition of Rice’s Home Sweet Homicide (Cilada Triangular), originally published in 1954 by Édipo. When I asked for permission to report on my blog, he not only consented but also sent me five other vintage paperback scans all from the same series and which feature artwork by Roberto Araújo, whose modernist-inspired covers are among the most striking and gorgeous I’ve ever seen. I wish I owned a few of these in my collection.

Miguel was nice enough to share the history Araújo and O Escaravelho de Ouro, the series of books by Édipo from which these came. He also provided a detailed bibliography of the entire series, including publication date, translator, and cover artist.

Before I let Miguel take over, I just wanted to say a big “Thank you” for sharing all of this precious information with us – it was very generous of you.

So here’s Miguel:

Craig Rice’s Home Sweet Homicide was published in 1954 in Lisbon as Cilada Triangular. (Cilada Triangular, in Portuguese, means something like Triangular Trap.) The publishing house was Édipo. It is Nr. 34 of a collection named O Escaravelho de Ouro (the Portuguese translation of Poe’s Gold-Bug). The book was translated by José Cabral. The cover is by Roberto Araújo (1911-1969). His full name was Roberto Araújo Pereira and he was a painter and designer. He is totally forgotten in Portugal (and he was never known elsewhere). It’s hard to find any information about him, but I know that he worked for some Portuguese classic movies as set decorator, and he also did some stained-glass windows for churches.

The collection O Escaravelho de Ouro consisted of 40 books published between 1950 and 1955. Roberto Araújo did 17 covers for the collection. The collection is very hard to find in Portugal, and I think I must be one of the few lucky guys to have a complete set, although one of the books (Craig Rice’s Innocent Bystander/Testemunha Inocente) has lost its cover, which irritates me a lot.

-- Luís Miguel Queirós

Bibliography and scans courtesy of Luís Miguel Queirós


Information listed as follows:
Author's Full Name
Title in original language
Title in Portuguese
Portuguese Publication Info
Cover Artist
Series Number

STEEMAN, Stanislas-André
Stanislas-André Steeman
Belgium, 1908-1970
Três Igual a Um
L’Assassin Habite au 21, 1939
Édipo, 1950
Trans: Adolfo Casais Monteiro (1908-1972)
Cover: Roberto Araújo (1911-1969)
O Escaravelho de Ouro, 1

CROFTS, Freeman Wills
Freeman Wills Crofts
Ireland, 1879-1957
Homem ao Mar
Man Overboard!, 1936
Édipo, 1950
Trans: Paulo Santa Rita
Cover: Roberto Araújo (1911-1969)
O Escaravelho de Ouro, 2

PRIOLY, Lucien
Lucien Prioly
France, 1908
Jogo Duplo
Le Colonel Avait Perdu, 1949
Édipo, 1950
Trans: Adolfo Casais Monteiro (1908-1972)
Cover: Rosa Duarte
O Escaravelho de Ouro, 3

LATIMER, Jonathan
Jonathan Wyatt Latimer
U.S.A., 1906-1983
Rapto na Morgue
The Lady in the Morgue, 1936
Édipo, 1950
Trans: Vaz d’Ascensão
Cover: Rosa Duarte
O Escaravelho de Ouro, 4

STARNES, Richard
Richard Starnes
U.S.A., 1908
Missão Trágica
And When She Was Bad She Was Murdered, 1950
Édipo, 1950
Trans: Pedro de Figueiredo
Cover: Rosa Duarte
O Escaravelho de Ouro, 5

John Dickson Carr
U.S.A., 1906-1977
Aviso Sinistro
Lord of the Sorcerers, 1946
Édipo, 1950
Trans: M. da Motta Cardoso
Cover: Rosa Duarte
O Escaravelho de Ouro, 6

Anita Blackmon Smith
U.S.A., 1893-1965
Rito Mortal
The Riddle of the Dead Cats, 1939
Édipo, 1950
Trans: Adolfo Casais Monteiro
Cover: Rosa Duarte
O Escaravelho de Ouro, 7

Igor B. Maslowski
France [b. Russia], 1914-1999
Pânico no Júri
Le Jury Avait Soif, 1950
Édipo, 1951
Trans: Roberto Manuel
Cover: Rosa Duarte
O Escaravelho de Ouro, 8

COXE, George Harmon
George Harmon Coxe
U.S.A., 1901-1984
Prova Formal
Eye Witness, 1950
Édipo, 1951
Trans: Elsa de Carvel
Cover: Rosa Duarte
O Escaravelho de Ouro, 9

GARDNER, Erle Stanley
Erle Stanley Gardner
U.S.A., 1889-1970
O Fio da Meada
The Clue of the Forgotten Murder, 1935 [1]
Édipo, 1951
Trans: Cansado Gonçalves
Cover: Rosa Duarte
O Escaravelho de Ouro, 10
[1] In the Portuguese edition the book is signed Erle Stanley Gardner, but Gardner signed it with the pseudonym Carleton Kendrake in the first American edition.

Raymond Thornton Chandler
U.S.A., 1888-1959
À Beira do Abismo
The Big Sleep, 1939
Édipo, 1951
Trans: Baptista de Carvalho
Cover: Rosa Duarte
O Escaravelho de Ouro, 11

Mignon Good Eberhart
U.S.A., 1899-1996
Nas Asas do Terror
Wings of Fear, 1945
Édipo, 1951
Trans: Elsa de Carvel
Cover: Rosa Duarte
O Escaravelho de Ouro, 12

QUEEN, Ellery
Manfred Bennington Lee & Frederic Dannay
U.S.A., 1905-1971 & U.S.A., 1905-1982
O Mistério dos Irmãos Siameses
The Siamese Twin Mystery, 1933
Édipo, 1951
Trans: Adolfo Casais Monteiro
Cover: Rosa Duarte
O Escaravelho de Ouro, 13

Mary Clarissa Miller
England, 1891-1976
Um Crime nas Nuvens
Death in the Clouds, 1935
Édipo, 1951
Trans: Baptista de Carvalho
Cover: Rosa Duarte
O Escaravelho de Ouro, 14

GARDNER, Erle Stanley
Erle Stanley Gardner
U.S.A., 1889-1970
No Rasto da Morte
This Is Murder, 1935 [1]
Édipo, 1951
Trans: Baptista de Carvalho
Cover: Rosa Duarte
O Escaravelho de Ouro, 15
[1] In the Portuguese edition the book is signed Erle Stanley Gardner, but Gardner signed it with the pseudonym Charles J. Kenny in the first American edition.

DOYLE, Arthur Conan
Arthur Ignatius Conan Doyle
England, 1859-1930
A Lenda do Pântano
The Hound of the Baskervilles, 1902
Édipo, 1951
Trans: Baptista de Carvalho
Cover: Rosa Duarte
O Escaravelho de Ouro, 16

Dorothy Feilding
U.S.A.?, 1900
Culpado ou Inocente?
The Tall House Mystery, 1933
Édipo, 1951
Trans: Baptista de Carvalho
Cover: Rosa Duarte
O Escaravelho de Ouro, 17

John Dickson Carr
U.S.A., 1906-1977
Noivado Trágico
My Late Wives, 1947
Édipo, 1952
Trans: Baptista de Carvalho
Cover: Rosa Duarte
O Escaravelho de Ouro, 18

QUEEN, Ellery
Manfred Bennington Lee & Frederic Dannay
U.S.A., 1905-1971 & U.S.A., 1905-1982
Era Uma Vez Uma Velha
There Was an Old Woman, 1943
Édipo, 1952
Trans: Baptista de Carvalho
Cover: Rosa Duarte
O Escaravelho de Ouro, 19

CARR, John Dickson
John Dickson Carr
U.S.A., 1906-1977
A Sombra do Patíbulo
The Lost Gallows, 1931
Édipo, 1952
Trans: Elsa de Carvel
Cover: Rosa Duarte
O Escaravelho de Ouro, 20

HAMMETT, Dashiell
Samuel Dashiell Hammett
U.S.A., 1894-1961
O Homem Sombra
The Thin Man, 1934
Édipo, 1952
Trans: Baptista de Carvalho
Cover: Rosa Duarte
O Escaravelho de Ouro, 21

COXE, George Harmon
George Harmon Coxe
U.S.A., 1901-1984
Cinco Pistas
Murder With Pictures, 1935
Édipo, 1952
Trans: Baptista de Carvalho
Cover: Rosa Duarte
O Escaravelho de Ouro, 22

GARDNER, Erle Stanley
Erle Stanley Gardner
U.S.A., 1889-1970
Uma Partida de Poker
The D. A. Takes a Chance?, 1948
Édipo, 1952
Trans: Baptista de Carvalho
Cover: Rosa Duarte
O Escaravelho de Ouro, 23

Willard Huntington Wright
U.S.A., 1888-1939
O Caso do Antiquário
Kennell Murder Case, 1933
Édipo, 1952
Trans: No information available
Cover: Rosa Duarte
O Escaravelho de Ouro, 24

RICE, Craig
Georgiana Ann Randolph Craig
U.S.A., 1908-1957
Testemunha Inocente
Innocent Bystander, 1949
Édipo, 1953
Trans: Baptista de Carvalho
Cover: Roberto Araújo (1911-1969)
O Escaravelho de Ouro, 25

Clarence Hugh Holman
U.S.A., 1914-1981
Morte Legal
Slay the Murderer, 1946
Édipo, 1953
Trans: Francisco Valle
Cover: Roberto Araújo (1911-1969)
O Escaravelho de Ouro, 26

Mignon Good Eberhart
U.S.A., 1899-1996
O Crime do Hospital
While the Patient Slept, 1930
Édipo, 1953
Trans: Baptista de Carvalho
Cover: Roberto Araújo (1911-1969)
O Escaravelho de Ouro, 27

OPPENHEIM, E. Phillips
Edward Phillips Oppenheim
England, 1866-1946
Crime Gratuito
The Master Mummer, 1905
Édipo, 1953
Trans: Jorge Villa-Real
Cover: Roberto Araújo (1911-1969)
O Escaravelho de Ouro, 28

SIMENON, Georges
Georges Joseph Christian Simenon
Belgium, 1903-1989
Maigret em Paris
Maigret en Meublé, 1951
Édipo, 1953
Trans: Baptista de Carvalho
Cover: Roberto Araújo (1911-1969)
O Escaravelho de Ouro, 29

Willard Huntington Wright
U.S.A., 1888-1939
O Enigma do Casino
The Casino Murder Case, 1934
Édipo, 1953
Trans: J. E. Arouca
Cover: Roberto Araújo (1911-1969)
O Escaravelho de Ouro, 30

GARDNER, Erle Stanley
U.S.A., 1889-1970
O Papagaio Perjuro
The Case of the Perjured Parrot, 1939
Édipo, 1953
Trans: Baptista de Carvalho
Cover: Roberto Araújo (1911-1969)
O Escaravelho de Ouro, 31

LEROUX, Gaston
Gaston Louis Alfred Leroux
France, 1868-1927
O Mistério do Quarto Amarelo
Le Mystère de la Chambre Jaune, 1907
Édipo, 1954
Trans: Jorge Villa Real
Cover: Roberto Araújo (1911-1969)
O Escaravelho de Ouro, 32

Anthony Berkeley Cox
England, 1893-1971
Before the Fact [written as Francis Iles], 1932
Édipo, 1954
Trans: Baptista de Carvalho
Cover: Roberto Araújo (1911-1969)
O Escaravelho de Ouro, 33

RICE, Craig
Georgiana Ann Randolph Craig
U.S.A., 1908-1957
Cilada Triangular
Home Sweet Homicide, 1944
Édipo, 1954
Trans: José Cabral
Cover: Roberto Araújo (1911-1969)
O Escaravelho de Ouro, 34

Bill Sanborn Ballinger
U.S.A., 1912-1980
Versão Original
Portrait in Smoke, 1950
Édipo, 1954
Trans: Luís de Almeida Campos
Cover: Roberto Araújo (1911-1969)
O Escaravelho de Ouro, 35

Cecil John Charles Street
England, 1884-1964
Morte Contra-Relógio
Murder on Duty, 1952
Édipo, 1954
Trans: Luís de Almeida Campos
Cover: Roberto Araújo (1911-1969)
O Escaravelho de Ouro, 36

SAYERS, Dorothy L.
Dorothy Leigh Sayers
England, 1893-1957
Revisão de Processo
The Documents in the Case, 1930
Édipo, 1954
Trans: Luís de Almeida Campos
Cover: Roberto Araújo (1911-1969)
O Escaravelho de Ouro, 37

CHASE, James Hadley
Rene Lodge Brazabon Raymond
England, 1906-1985
A Carne da Orquídea
The Flesh of the Orchid, 1948
Édipo, 1954
Trans: Luís de Almeida Campos
Cover: Roberto Araújo (1911-1969)
O Escaravelho de Ouro, 38

Bill Sanborn Ballinger
U.S.A., 1912-1980
Pista Cruzada
Rafferty, 1953
Ulisseia, 1954
Trans: José Cabral
Cover: Roberto Araújo (1911-1969)
O Escaravelho de Ouro, 39

WORLEY, William
Inquérito Privado
My Dead Wife, 1948
Ulisseia, 1955
Trans: José Cabral
Cover: M. Vespeira
O Escaravelho de Ouro, 40

Monday, June 15, 2009

"The Way Home" by George Pelecanos (Little, Brown, 2009)

The Way Home is a deceptively simple title that offers false promises of hope and salvation. Home is where the heart is, right? Not anymore. In his latest book, George Pelecanos is out to show that the old mythology of “home sweet home” doesn’t have a place in the modern world. Broken, bitter families go beyond racial and class divides, unifying a diverse population with a deep-rooted sense of displacement.

Chris Flynn came from what statistics would call a “good family” – his parents aren’t divorced, they own their house, his father runs his own business, and there’s enough money for no one to worry. Yet superficial wealth hides the resentment and dissatisfaction that lies just beneath the surface. After a drug-fueled night of fights and car chases, Chris’ lifestyle finally catches up with him, and he winds up in a correctional facility for teens. But inside the walls of prison, Chris and his fellow inmates don’t find rehabilitation – just a microcosm of the problems they faced out in the real world: ignorance, intolerance, violence, and hopelessness.

Years later, Chris is out and working for his father. His friends from juvenile prison are out, and some of them are trying to turn their lives around: Ben is working with Chris laying carpets, and Ali is a social worker trying to get kids off the streets. But try as they might to avoid trouble, trouble finds them. While on a job, Chris and Ben uncover a bag of stolen money, but not wanting to implicate themselves in any crime they leave it alone. Only Ben happens to mention the money to a friend from prison who can’t say no to free cash. And soon enough, the owners of the money come looking for their stash, and when they can’t find it, there’s hell to pay – and they go calling on Chris.

There’s a haunting ambiguity to the title that becomes all the more apparent as the story progresses. “Home” may be their destination, but what exactly is “the way”? There are no promises of safety and security, or even the assurance of reaching their destination, wherever it may be. And what is the “home” each of the characters are looking for? Whether middle-class rancor or poverty, these characters were unable to find sanctity or support at home, only closed doors and closed minds, and a seemingly inescapable future already written for them. Or, perhaps, is “home” a reference to the prison that so many return to time and time again? The ominous undertones of the title only grow as the characters veer further and further away from the “right” path that society demands of them, yet which it refuses to allow them to follow.

Like the birds who eat the bread crumbs left behind in fairy tales, it is society-at-large that obscures the paths of the characters – whether they travel forwards or backwards – by limiting their options, by not providing jobs, and by passing judgment on their pasts. One of Pelecanos’ biggest concerns in The Way Home is the hypocrisy of a culture that insists that people pay for their crimes yet doesn’t always accept their penance. Pelecanos wants change – he doesn’t drag readers through the prison systems and through the unforgiving streets of D.C. for the fun of it, but in order to call attention to real problems. In the “acknowledgements” section, Pelecanos makes reference to The Sentencing Project (a group dedicated to the “research and advocacy for reform), but he also works this strain of activism into the story itself. The character of Ali, in particular, seems to be an earnest voice of hope in the novel, someone who vocalizes not only the need for reform, but also the difficulty of achieving and real change both with the system and with the kids themselves.

The Way Home is not an escapist novel. Pelecanos’ unique expression of realist crime fiction is rooted in our everyday world, in the anxieties we experience on our way to work, and the worries we carry on our backs as we head home at the end of the day. In addition to offering a perceptive window on contemporary life, what Pelecanos provides is sympathy for struggle, and a sincere belief in the future. For all its downtrodden characters and all the dead ends they encounter, The Way Home remains a hopeful book. When all is said and done, the “home” the characters return to promises to be a better place than the one they originally left behind.

And now for a few quotes from the novel:

“She laced her fingers together, rested her hands on the table, and bowed her head. Chris and Thomas Flynn dutifully did the same. But they did not speak to God, and their thoughts were not spiritual or pure.”

“I’m just disappointed, thought Flynn. That’s all it is. I’ve been a failure as a father, and there’s nothing ahead of me that looks promising or new.”

“I kinda figured out what you’re doing. What they call the formula. You’re getting kids all jacked up on one hundred and eighty pages of violence and disrespect, and then you add ten pages of redemption in the end that they not even gonna read. What I’d like to see is a whole book about a kid who doesn’t do any wrong at all. Who stays on the straight even though he may be living in a bad environment, because that’s the right thing to do. Because he knows the consequences of being wrong.”

“In his apartment, Chris sat in the dark and drank another beer. He had been thinking on something the little man with the thick mustache had said. As the pieces began to connect in his head, murder came to his heart.”

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Stories for Sunday: Patti Abbott and Paul D. Brazill

The Internet has been especially generous this past week, giving us two spectacular new stores from Patti Abbott and Paul D. Brazill, both of which I am featuring for this week’s edition of Stories for Sunday.

Abbott’s “The Tortoise and the Tortoise” was published over at Pulp Pusher, and is a darkly comic gem you might describe as “nursing home noir.” George, the protagonist of the story, may be in the autumn of his life but he’s determined not to go quietly. The reigning king of bingo, Nintendo wii bowling champ, leader of the Mardi Gras parade – he’s the all-around life of the party who still knows how to piss in his bed to annoy the aides. But then comes the arrival of Father Ryan who threatens to steal all of George’s limelight, and George must do something to protect his territory. Like Margaret Millar, Abbott’s details focus on the all-too-human element of her characters and the reality of their situation.

Read Patti Abbott’s “The Tortoise and the Tortoise” here at Pulp Pusher.

Brazill’s latest is the cleverly titled “The Tut” from the excellent online magazine Beat To a Pulp. With echoes of Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart,” Brazill’s story of a husband who has finally lost patience with his nagging wife and decided to shut her up…permanently. This is a corkscrew world inhabited by twisted characters unable to recognize their skewed perception until it’s too late to save themselves or their sanity. Only a fiendish mind like Brazill’s could make something this psychotic so thoroughly enjoyable.

Read Paul D. Brazill’s “The Tut” here at Beat to a Pulp.

(The above image is an illustration for "The Tell-Tale Heart" by Harry Clarke from 1919, courtesy of Wikipedia.)

Friday, June 12, 2009

".44" by H.A. DeRosso (Lion Books, 1953)

The roving gunfighter is an integral part of Western mythology. The mysterious stranger – a gun belt hung low on the hip – the quick draw and even faster trigger finger. What’s particularly interesting about this archetype is that it can apply to both heroes and villains. Like a doppelganger, the roving gunfighter is both the solution and the problem. Think about the ending of Shane: his coming to town is mirrored by the arrival of another hired gun, and at the end of the story Shane, the victor, knows he must be moving on. He’s a killer with a conscience, but – as his nagging conscience always reminds – he is still a killer. It’s a part of him that can’t be denied, reckoned with, or erased. A man with a gun is forever a man with a gun.

It is this irresolvable duality that haunts the protagonist of H.A. DeRosso’s noir-tinged Western .44 (Lion Books #129, 1953). Dan Harland never asked for the reputation of a feared gunfighter when he signed on as a ranch hand, but a feud between two rival ranches changed all of that. When a hotheaded employee of the competition challenged him to a dual, he had to defend himself. Little did he realize winning would change his life forever. From across the country, young up-and-coming shooters tracked him down and wanted a challenge. One by one, he killed them all – but always in self-defense, he always reminded himself.

But unable to shake the reputation, he takes his first job as a hired killer. When he meets up with his victim, Harland picks a square fight. Only this time, the other fellow draws first – but he doesn’t fire. Harland does, and that’s when he realizes, for the first time, that he has killed in cold blood. Haunted by this realization, Harland demands to know why his victim wouldn’t shoot, but the man dies before he can say anything. Determined to find out who this man was, and who wanted him dead, Harland heads to the deceased’s home and uncovers a dense web of deceit, infidelity, and murder that all centers around missing money from a bank job totaling one hundred thousand dollars.

.44 is about the weight and guilt of taking a human life. There’s nothing flippant, heroic, or exciting about the killing in the opening chapter. Right from the start, DeRosso lets us know that Harland is capable of doing wrong, and that all the terrible things people have been saying about him – that he’s cold-blooded and merciless – are true. He makes for a compelling protagonist because we are introduced to him at his absolute worst – and from there he has to prove not only to us readers, but also to himself, that he’s still a human being worth of sympathy.

DeRosso’s female characters are just as morally complex as Harland. Lorraine Lancaster (the dead man’s wife) and Glennis Jordan (sister of a local rancher) are violent, vengeful women who don’t sit at home waiting for the men to take care of business. They take to their horses and comb the barren plains themselves in search of Harland themselves. But as the story progresses, Lorraine and Glennis begin to diverge. Like two sides of the same coin, their rage is linked by drive but separated by motivation. As with Harland, DeRosso feels that violence, though often warranted, isn’t always morally justified, and that acting upon it is a heavy burden for anyone to carry.

A dark, psychological Western, .44 merges the brooding sensibility of noir with the stark, iconic desert landscapes that symbolically leave the characters exposed and vulnerable to the harsh high noon sun, but also those parts of themselves that they’d rather not give in to. DeRosso’s writing is stark and hard-hitting, devoid of excessive flourishes yet finely attuned to the inner-lives of his characters – and we can’t forget the suspenseful shootouts. When its lean but dynamic 159 pages are over, you can’t help but admit that .44 is one hell of a good Western.

And now for a sampling of .44:

“Harland could see the dark yawn of eternity in the muzzle of Lancaster’s .45.”

“Worthington’s heart was as unfeeling as a chunk of stone ripped out of the bowels of the mountain.”

“Night was starting to close in and in the thickening gloom her faced look wan and even distraught. But perhaps that was due to the twilight, Harland thought, and his own dark mood.”

“The land stretched empty and desolate and full of an inarticulate loneliness.”

“Don’t ever let me hear you say again that you want to kill. I know what it’s like. It isn’t the killings that you detest that are bad. It’s the ones that you enjoy.”

“Save himself. That was the bit that held him. Save himself for what. For the years ahead, for the gunmoney they would keep shoving at him. ‘Work, killer. Do your job. Here’s your wages.’ The empty, dark maw of years ahead, bleak and beckoning, unchanging. Save himself, for that.”

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

First Lines: David Goodis

Invariably, whenever I start a David Goodis novel I have to set it aside and let the first sentence sink in and slowly drag me down, down, always down. It only takes a few words for Goodis to fully transport you into his gloomy world of gutters, alleys and dives. His novels are the incessant thoughts of 3AM, when its too late to sleep and too early to rise, when you stumble through backlogs of regret and disappointment; that solitary time when you can’t be anything but honest with yourself, even when you don’t like what you have to say.

Seeing how his novels are so thematically consistent, I wanted to see how his first lines would match up if they were all put together. The result is just the sort of dark, brooding poetry that is characteristic of Goodis. Even though both Philadelphia and New York are mentioned, the discrepancy hardly matters: the place is singularly Goodis, that landscape of urban desolation. And the characters, regardless of their names, are but variations on the theme of the loser with his head hung low and his eyes aimed even lower.

I’ve listed the first lines twice. First, I’ve arranged the opening lines in chronological order in the form of a poem (of sorts), so you can see the way the sentences really flow into one another over the course of his entire career. Second, I’ve broken up the lines and provided bibliographic data (the name of the book the line comes from, and date of publication).


After a while it gets so bad that you want to stop the whole business.
It was a tough break.

It was one of those hot sticky nights that makes Manhattan show its age.

Next door they were having another fight.

He didn’t like the look in her eyes.

It was raining hard in Philadelphia as Cassidy worked the bus through heavy traffic on Market Street.

It began with a shattered dream.

On Ruxton Street, at ten past ten, the Chinese girl was flat on her back in the gutter.

At three in the morning it was dead around here and the windows of the mansion were black, the mansion dark purple and solemn against the moonlit velvet green of gently sloping lawn.

At the edge of the alleyway facing Vernon Street, a gray cat waited for a large rat to emerge from its hiding place.

January cold came in from two rivers, formed four walls around Hart and closed in on him.

There were three of them sitting on the pavement with their backs against the wall of a flophouse.

Ralph stood on the corner, leaning against the brick wall of Silver’s candy store, telling himself to go home and get some sleep.

At the other end of the bar it was crowded, and at this end he stood alone, drinking a gin-and-tonic.

There were no street lamps, no lights at all.

In the brick-paved alley some of the bricks were missing and the woman stumbled as she hurried along, her head lowered against a slashing wind.

At 11:20 a fairly well-dressed boozehound came staggering out of a bootleg-whiskey joint on Fourth Street.

There was no land in sight.


“After a while it gets so bad that you want to stop the whole business.” (Retreat from Oblivion, 1939)

“It was a tough break.” (Dark Passage, 1946)

“It was one of those hot sticky nights that makes Manhattan show its age.” (Nightfall, 1947)

“Next door they were having another fight.” (Behold this Woman, 1947)

“He didn’t like the look in her eyes.” (Of Missing Persons, 1950)

“It was raining hard in Philadelphia as Cassidy worked the bus through heavy traffic on Market Street.” (Cassidy’s Girl, 1951)

“It began with a shattered dream.” (Of Tender Sin, 1952)

“On Ruxton Street, at ten past ten, the Chinese girl was flat on her back in the gutter.” (Street of the Lost, 1952)

“At three in the morning it was dead around here and the windows of the mansion were black, the mansion dark purple and solemn against the moonlit velvet green of gently sloping lawn.” (The Burglar, 1953)

“At the edge of the alleyway facing Vernon Street, a gray cat waited for a large rat to emerge from its hiding place.” (The Moon in the Gutter, 1953)

“January cold came in from two rivers, formed four walls around Hart and closed in on him.” (Black Friday, 1954)

“There were three of them sitting on the pavement with their backs against the wall of a flophouse.” (Street of No Return, 1954)

“Ralph stood on the corner, leaning against the brick wall of Silver’s candy store, telling himself to go home and get some sleep.” (The Blonde on the Street Corner, 1954)

“At the other end of the bar it was crowded, and at this end he stood alone, drinking a gin-and-tonic.” (The Wounded and the Slain, 1955)

“There were no street lamps, no lights at all.” (Down There, 1956)

“In the brick-paved alley some of the bricks were missing and the woman stumbled as she hurried along, her head lowered against a slashing wind.” (Fire in the Flesh, 1957)

“At 11:20 a fairly well-dressed boozehound came staggering out of a bootleg-whiskey joint on Fourth Street.” (Night Squad, 1961)

“There was no land in sight.” (Somebody’s Done For, 1967)

Four Play Questionnaire

This questionnaire has been going around a lot in the past day, and James Reasoner of Rough Edges tagged me, so here I go…

Four Movies You Can See Over and Over
The Fatal Glass of Beer with W.C. Fields (Clyde Bruckman, 1933)
The Life of the Party with Winnie Lightner and Charles Butterworth (Roy Del Ruth, 1930)
Summertime with Katherine Hepburn (David Lean, 1955)
Vertigo with James Stewart (Alfred Hitchcock, 1958)

Four Places You Have Lived
Orono, ME
August, GA
Manhattan, NY
Brooklyn, NY

Four TV Shows You Love to Watch
Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Veronica Mars

Four Places You Have Been on a Vacation
Los Angeles, CA
Boston, MA
Rockport, ME
Spain (school trip, so an “educational” vacation)

Four of Your Favorite Foods
Chicken Pot Pie
Scrambled Eggs with Bacon, Tomato and Guacamole mixed in
Meatloaf with Marinara
Strawberry/Raspberry Pie

Four Websites You Visit Daily
The Rap Sheet
Advanced Book Exchange

Four Places You Would Rather Be
Honestly, wouldn’t want to live anywhere else than Brooklyn right now (maybe a bigger apartment, but I won’t be picky). But here are four places in New York City where I like to go:

Jimmy’s Diner (Williamsburg, Brooklyn)
The Clover Club (Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn)
Partners and Crime Mystery Bookstore (Greenwich Village, Manhattan)
Film Forum (Greenwich Village, Manhattan)

Four Things You Hope to Do Before You Die
Publish a novel
Get my Ph.D. in Film History
Have my music pressed on vinyl
Go on tour across the country with a band

Four Novels You Wish You Were Reading for the First Time
Here Comes a Candle by Fredric Brown
The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov
Black Friday For by David Goodis
Ham on Rye by Charles Bukowski

Tag Four People You Believe Will Respond
Gordon Harries of Needle Scratch Static
Gary Dobbs of The Tainted Archive
John Jennison of DoGooder Comics
Paul Brazill of You Would Say That, Wouldn’t You

Monday, June 8, 2009

"The Midnight Room" by Ed Gorman (Leisure Books, 2009)

“Some things could be funny and sad at the same time. And this was one of them.”

It’s a fitting quote for a novel that expertly balances its grisly subject matter with storytelling so skillfully crafted and innovative that one can’t deny the sheer pleasure of reading such an accomplished wordsmith as Ed Gorman. Well-respected by writers and readers alike, Gorman’s latest novel, The Midnight Room (Leisure Books, 2009), exemplifies why he is one of the leading names in contemporary crime fiction.

As the novel opens, a mother is celebrating her daughter’s birthday without her. She’s been missing three months. But when a mysterious package arrives in the mail, the mother knows she can finally stop worrying, because all her worst nightmares have just come true. In the package is her daughter’s skull. Putting a twist on the seemingly stale “serial killer” plot, Gorman throws the reader for a loop by divulging the identity of the murderer early on and introducing a new element to the standard plot: an unnamed burglar who discovers a DVD of the murder while looting the killer’s safe. The question now isn’t just who will be next and how long will it take for the killer to be caught – but who is this person that now shares the secret, and how long will they remain complicit in crimes of the past, as well as those yet to come?

From here, Gorman delves into the troubled relationship between two brothers on the police force, Michael and Steve Scanlon, whose elderly father was a legendary officer before them. Sibling rivalry and the stress of their failing relationships with their respective wives and girlfriends come to a boil just as news hits the streets of another girl’s disappearance, and the two brothers find themselves caught at the center of an investigation that offers no clues and has the public in a city-wide panic.

While Gorman calls this “my own version of the Gold Medal novel” and dedicates it to Peter Rabe, Stephen Marlowe, William Campbell Gault, and Robert Colby, The Midnight Room is anything but a pastiche. It's as lean, mean, and entertaining as any of the old Gold Medals, but it’s also just as brutal and unforgiving of its characters – particularly of its three primary protagonists, police officers Kim Pierce and Michael and Steve Scanlon.

By divulging the identity of the killer before we are even introduced to the officers, Gorman places us in an ironic position of power and authority because, essentially, we’re powerless to do anything with our knowledge. Unlike a traditional police procedural in which we follow along with the cops as they accumulate clues, solve the case, and restore order to a chaotic world, most of The Midnight Room is spent with the police unable to draw conclusions and unable to assert any sense of control on the world around them. This innovative structure of the novel not only reinforces the vulnerability and human limitations of the central protagonists, but also undermines the reader’s sense of security. Victims and predators alike could be anyone around us, and those that we lean on for help – whether it is family, friend, or police – are often just as helpless as us.

Gorman never underestimates his readers. He understands that they know the archetypes in and out, and can hear a false note from a mile away. To Gorman’s great credit, there’s nothing phony about The Midnight Room, neither his writing nor his characters. They are created out of tough love – no one is overly valorized in this morally ambiguous and unjust world in which darkness often gets the better of them. There’s something haunting about the characters’ overwhelming sense of regret, and their inability to enact change either in their own life or in others. Often they recognize the root of their own problems and its sometimes-devastating effect on others – yet their actions have an irreparable gravity to them. Some things just can’t be easily fixed, not even in a book.

Here are a few samples of Gorman’s exceptional prose:

“Big deal she was a cop with a gun and badge. She was just as helpless as anybody else. She’d felt guilty about it for years after.”

“His only conclusion was that there was no conclusion to be drawn, no real explanation. He realized that all this profiling the FBI did was little more than a way of calming nerves. If you could identify a cause then maybe it wasn’t so terrifying. But Olson knew better. He was death waiting to light on someone.”

“His life had made wonderful sense. His impending death made no sense at all. But then death never did. Michael leaned down and kissed his father on his freckled bald head.”

“She knew there was nothing left to say. Despite the heat she felt chilled now, chilled and alone under the vast starry sky.”

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Stories for Sunday: "Trapped in Silver" by Horace McCoy (Nickel Detective, August 1933)

This week’s selection for Stories for Sunday comes from one of the most searing, merciless writers of his day: Horace McCoy. He is best known for his Depression-era nightmare They Shoot Horses Don’t They (1935), about a hellish dance marathon and its myriad participants – all of them, literally, losers at the end of their ropes. Among his other excellent novels is No Pockets In a Shroud (1937) about an idealistic journalist who learns to keep his mouth shut the hard way; I Should Have Stayed Home (1938), a brutal account of the false-fantasies of 1930s Hollywood that stands alongside Budd Schulberg’s What Makes Sammy Run (1941); and Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye (1948), as ruthless an account of a gangster that has ever been published.

“Trapped by Silver” was originally published by Nickel Detective in August 1933 at a time when the author had already left his position as a full-time journalist and was trying to make a go at it in Hollywood. This seems to inform the somewhat mysterious first-person narrator, whose identity is never fully explained. It appears that he is a screenwriter, or filmmaker of some type, who is accompanying Police Sergeant Donovan as he investigates the seemingly natural death of a millionaire doctor. But as he begins to question those closest to the deceased, Donovan begins to suspect that there may be more than meets the eye.

“This is the kind of a thing,” Donovan said, “that makes me wonder whether I got promoted to the homicide squad or demoted to it.”

Classic McCoy, his dystopian vision is subtly on display in “Trapped By Silver.” As the story unfolds, several layers of greed and corruption become apparent – some even sanctioned by law. The backstory of the deceased’s immense wealth is that he accepted payments of land from impoverished patients, which unbeknownst to their owners was rich with oil. And even the narrator and the detective seem to be complicit in this merry-go-round of exploitation, as the story ends with a cynical quip that suggests this might become the foundation for a movie. There’s always more money to be made off a corpse – “trapped by silver,” indeed.

Click here to read Horace McCoy’s “Trapped by Silver” courtesy of PulpGen.

Cover image courtesy of Galactic Central.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Book Restoration Services from Hang Fire Books (Brooklyn, NY)

I recently made the acquaintance of William Smith of Hang Fire Books, located in Brooklyn, NY. So far I’ve picked up quite a few gems: Gold Medal originals of David Goodis’ Fire in the Flesh and Harry Whittington’s Fires that Destroy, as well as a couple of Whittington’s Westerns (Vengeance is the Spur and Wild Lonesome) and an Ace-double by Stewart Sterling. Not only does he have a great collection of pulps for sale, but he also offers another great service: vintage book restoration. He describes his process here on his blog.

I brought him a stack of my vintage paperbacks that were in pretty bad shape, including a signed Richard Prather that was so slanted it couldn’t be opened, as well as a Mickey Spillane that was literally in several pieces, none of which were connected to the spine anymore. Most of the books just had spine slants, tears or bends in the cover, or breaks in the spine. Within a few days, I received an email that all were ready to be picked up. And voila! The Prather now had a square binding, as did the Spillane and the others. The picture below shows the stack of books I brought him, and there is noticeable improvement in all of them. Tears were fixed and bindings were strengthened, which means that not only will the books now enjoy a much longer life, but also I’ll be able to enjoy them for many more years to come, as well.

So, if you have some vintage paperbacks in need of some restoration at affordable prices, Hang Fire Books is highly recommended.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

"Fake I.D." by Jason Starr (No Exit, 2000/Hard Case Crime, 2009)

Beyond the alienated, sociopathic Private Eyes and infectious Femme Fatales, there are several other reoccurring character types that are equally symbolic of the brooding, desperate sensibility of noir. Of course there are those Average Joes and Janes that are thrown into the belly of the criminal underworld whom Cornell Woolrich loved to write about. Goodis’ Dark Passage also fits this mold, with a protagonist who, in order to prove his innocence, must first become guilty himself. Then there are the losers who can’t get out from behind the eight-ball: whether on the straight and narrow or walking the crooked path, they are perpetually doomed. Charles Willeford’s Pick-Up and Richard Hallas’ You Play the Black and the Red Comes Up focus on characters like this. Then you have the psychopathic narrators of Jim Thompson, who drag you into their warped perceptions and nefarious desires.

It is these last two types that Jason Starr merges in Fake I.D., originally published in the UK by No Exit Press in 2000 and released for the first time in the US by Hard Case Crime in 2009. Tommy Russo is the bouncer of a small New York bar whose main kicks are occasional one-night stands with girls he meets at the bar and even less frequent wins at the track. A wannabe actor, even his agent has given up hope for him. Tommy gets a discount on his closet-sized studio apartment by working as the super, but even still he can barely make rent, what with the gambling debts and losses piling up like a mountain of garbage. He used to be able to count on his boss for advances on his salary, but not anymore.

Things aren’t exactly looking up for Tommy when the smelly Pete from Yonkers knocks on his car window one morning at the track. He and some buddies are pooling money to buy their own racehorse, and they need one more guy. After thinking it over, Pete decides he wants in. The problem? He needs $10,000. The solution? Rob the safe at his bar, which is overflowing with Super Bowl bets. But with his bad luck, Tommy’s dreams have little chance of coming true.

Fake I.D. unfolds like a slowly burning cigarette forgotten at the end of the night: when the ashes finally consume everything that remains, even they too must fall to the floor and disintegrate into nothingness. Like some gutter-Sisyphus, Tommy’s life is a cycle that goes nowhere, just from his apartment to the track to the bar and back to his apartment, where it all starts again. Starr contrasts Russo’s chronically dismal existence with his pipedreams of acting fame and horse-race winnings. An incurable dreamer, Russo’s fantasies are corrupted only by his desperation. The more he loses, the less he wants. It gets so bad that even a role in a dog food commercial seems like the first step through heaven’s gates.

Debased desires are just the first sign of his psychological breakdown. Much like the murderous sheriffs in Jim Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me or Pop. 1280 whose overly rational thought processes belie their growing instability, Russo’s plans become increasingly rash and half-baked. But to see it through his eyes, he’s in control of the entire world and nothing could ever grow wrong. More than an actor, Russo becomes an author who, just like Thompson’s sheriffs, sets into motion his own master-narrative, which casts him as the supreme winner. He sets up convenient frames for the police, performs a grand snow job on his boss, and whitewashes himself of his own guilt.

One of the underlying questions of noir literature is whether the world is really against the protagonist, or is perhaps they bring it upon themselves. Often, as in Gil Brewer’s 13 French Street, the answer lies somewhere in between: the main character knowingly enters a situation in which he will face temptation, but that doesn’t mean he’ll admit it to himself. This same subconscious desire for destruction fuels Tommy Russo, whose life – all things considered – isn’t too bad at all. He meets a great girl, one who even loans him $100 when he asks, and all he can think to do is rob her in her sleep and run away. At the racetrack, he may pretend he’s buying a ticket to win, but in reality he’s knowingly buying a ticket to lose. And in his more clearheaded moments, he’ll even admit as much. He knows there’s a racket and that the house always wins, yet somehow he thinks he can beat the system and come out on top. He thinks that he can get out from behind the giant eight-ball of life that is always in the way.

Quintessential noir to the extreme, Fake I.D. shows that the thematic underpinnings of classic authors such as Thompson and Goodis are just as relevant to today’s world as they were fifty years ago. People still dream, people still fail. Some get up and try again. And some, like Tommy Russo, just keep digging themselves an even deeper grave.

Hard Case Crime has generously posted the first chapter online, but here are a few of my favorite quotes from the novel.

“I guess it was the story of my life – when I had a good thing going I always found a way to screw it up.”

“I was so hungry I think I might’ve sucked in some bacon strips through my nose.”

“I gave him another solid right in the gut, then I walked out, taking a handful of French fries out of the rack on my way out.”

“I’m codependent. I like to be with sick, fucked-up women because I’m sick and fucked up myself.”

“I got up and stared at myself in the bathroom mirror, first thinking about how great I looked, then thinking about how the cops weren’t going to catch me.”

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Thoughts on an abandoned book...

How do you feel about abandoning a book mid-way? With fiction in particular, I try not to give up on a book and do my best to read all the way through to the end, even if I’m not enjoying it. Part of the reason is that after investing a certain amount of time into a story and its characters, I’d like to see how things turn out. Another reason is that I don’t feel that I’m able to properly discuss – let alone “review” – a book if I haven’t read it cover to cover. Not only might there be important plot elements left unread, but if you stop reading halfway (or even 3/4s) there is still ample room for the writer to twist the story around, or to say something that might grab your attention and make you re-think what you’ve just read. The last line of the book can be just as crucial as the first, and often it can influence how you interpret the overall tone of the book. In particular I’m thinking of Charles Willeford’s Pick-Up.

Recently I’ve been trying to read China Mieville’s The City and The City, which came highly recommended from a good friend, whose taste and opinions I admire, but also who knows the type of books that I enjoy. Previously she turned me on to John Franklin Bardin, who is now one of my favorite writers. So, I eagerly jumped into The City and The City and found myself entranced by its Quantum Physics/Police Procedural fusion. At first, that is. But the more I read on, the more frustrated I became with not only the book’s forced blend of reality/unreality, but also the belabored language which felt repetitive and wordy.

The premise of the novel is that it takes place in a fictional European city – rather, two cities, Besźel and Ul Qoma, which occupy the same geographical location but which are separate worlds. The citizens have been trained to “unsee” the other world, since they share the same space. It is highly illegal to “see” through the divide and see the other city, which means that to “breach” and cross-over without proper authorization is a most severe crime. But when a young female student is found murdered, the police begin to think that “breach” was involved, and they have to cross over to continue their investigation.

I tried for a week to finish the book, but couldn’t muster the enthusiasm to open it even while waiting on the subway. While I really loved the quasi-sci-fi atmosphere of the story, I found that there were just excessive amounts of detail about the location, and not enough about the characters or the story. The author would always interrupt the flow to tell us something more about the cities, which is often interesting but not always essential. After a certain point I had my own image of the two cities and was ready to dive into the story – but the writer didn’t seem to want to trust the readers to use their own imagination. By spelling everything out, the novel began to lose its magic and mystery.

So, halfway through, I had to stop. I returned the book to my friend, thanked her for the recommendation but was honest about how I felt. We had a nice chat about it, and I think we both see each other’s point of view. While I didn’t care for this book so much, I do look forward to more recommendations from my friend.

How do you feel about stopping a book halfway through? Has anyone read The City and The City? Perhaps I’m missing out on the best part.

By the way, this post is a partial explanation of why I haven’t written much on the blog over the past week. I have a couple books read and another almost finished, and I’ll be reviewing those shortly.
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