Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Women of the West: Texas Guinan in "The Gun Woman" (1918)

Women of the West review #2 is up at Not Coming to a Theater Near You - it is Frank Borzage's The Gun Woman (1918), starring that original cowgirl of the silver screen, Texas Guinan. Here's an excerpt from my review:
When we first meet Texas Guinan in The Gun Woman – a character nameless except for the moniker “The Tigress” – she is outside of her saloon at night, lingering half in the shadows, lighting her cigarette. Pre-Dietrich and pre-Noir, Guinan has femme fatale written over every inch of her body — yet this was made in 1918, and it is a Western. The cinematic predecessors that influenced film noir (namely German Expressionist and American hardboiled literature, both of the 1920s) were years away from being developed. Yet there she is, a deadly, dangerous woman, lurking in the darkest corners of the Old West – our lady Tex, “The Gun Woman” herself.
Read the full review of The Gun Woman here at Not Coming to a Theater Near You.

Before I post a few stills from the movie, I just wanted to give a big thanks to everyone for their kind words and enthusiasm for the series. Very much appreciated, I assure you. Now, on to the images!

Monday, July 27, 2009

Women of the West: Ruth Ann Baldwin's "49-17" (1917)

For all you Western fans out there, my friend Jenny Jediny and I have organized a feature over at Not Coming to a Theater Near You called "Women of the West." It focuses on the role of women in the Western both on-screen and behind the camera. The series covers films made between 1917 and 1995. For the next three weeks, we will be posting a new review everyday, so be sure to check back often for updates.

The first review went up today, and it is one that I wrote. 49-17 was made in 1917, and is the first Western feature film to be directed by a woman, Ruth Ann Baldwin. It was recently released on DVD by Kino – a nice piece of cultural history that is also very entertaining. It tells the story of an old gold miner who has gotten tired of living in the East and wants to rebuild his old settlement out West, while secretly looking for the long-long daughter of his former partner who is due to inherit her father's fortune.

Read my review of 49-17 here.

Below I have posted a few stills from the film for your enjoyment.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Stories for Sunday: Rawson, Hinkson, and Brazill

Taking a nap after work on Saturday night is definitely not a good idea – nearly 5AM and I’m wide awake. Good thing the internet is abuzz with some crazy stories, and now I finally have the time to catch up with them. This week’s edition of Stories for Sunday is bigger than normal – three stories coming your way, two hot off the press and one classic.

First thing is first. Keith Rawson’s “Marmalade” over at Beat to a Pulp. I don’t know what sort of deranged rays are in that Arizona sun, but lets hope Keith keeps getting more of them. This might be his best yet – the story of the recently paroled Tom Shepard, who has exchanged life behind bars to life with his vegetable father and nagging mother and picking up dog shit off the front lawn. Life sucks just a little less than before, which should be an improvement. But then Tom starts hearing voices from his supposedly catatonic pops – and that’s where I'll stop the synopsis. Rawson takes the story in some wild and unexpected directions, reigning it all in for a gonzo finale that would do any of Jim Thompson’s warped protagonists proud. Seriously dark and funny as hell – a must read.

“He finally flashed on the face of the girl gritting her teeth, tears and terror sweat streaking her mascara, smudging her makeup. His stomach lurched into his throat; yellow bile burning his nostrils and mouth with memory.”

Read Keith Rawson’s “Marmalade” here at Beat to a Pulp.

Speaking of Beat to a Pulp – as if we needed one more reason to love that site, here’s a gut-punch from their archives, Jake Hinkson’s “Maker’s and Coke.” Officer Lowell has come to an unpleasant realization “This life is a faithless whore.” Unable to get Ellie off his mind, he buys a bottle of Maker’s Mark and Coke and locks it in his trunk before going on duty. But the thoughts of her just won’t go away, so he has a drink, which leads to two, and before he’s knows it he’s lost count. And things only get worse when he stumbles upon a robbery-in-progress. Hinkson writes about cinema and film noir over at his site The Night Editor, and you can get a sense of that cinematic sensibility in this story. The whole thing unfolds like some devastating finale, filmed in the bleakest black-and-white hues possible.

“Once I thought about it, I realized no one else loved me, either. I sat there and considered it. There was no one left on this earth who loved me. That wasn't self-pity; it was math.”

Read Jake Hinkson’s “Maker’s and Coke” here at Beat to a Pulp.

Topping off this triple bill is the latest from Paul D. Brazill “A Cold Day In Hell,” published over at Blink Ink. Brazill edits like no one else around, refining and condensing stories to their bare essentials. Embracing brevity, his stories are highly evocative, suggesting images and scenes that go beyond the bounds of the words on the page. Just take a look at the fifty words that comprise “A Cold Day in Hell” and you’ll see what I mean.

“The January night had long since waned when Nathan blasted Oliver’s brains over the snow covered street…”

Read Paul D. Brazill’s “A Cold Day in Hell” here at Blink Ink.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Have you been to www.davidgoodis.com yet?

If you haven't checked out the latest updates over at www.davidgoodis.com, Aaron Finestone's site called Shooting Pool With David Goodis, then be sure and check it out soon. The site is a Goodis lover's paradise – rare photos, in-depth looks at different aspects of his life and work, conversations with those who knew him, and loads of other goodies. It's one of the most insightful and valuable collections of information on the author out there. A real one-of-its-kind venture, it makes you wish such comprehensive, well-researched sitets existed for other authors. Two of the latest updates include "Truffaut and Goodis" (about the French adaptation of Down There into Shoot the Piano Player) and "The Final Destruction of Goodisville" (a photo-essay about the remains of Goodis' old haunts around Philadelphia), which is particularly haunting. "Around New Year's day, probably 1976," writes Finestone, "I visited the church yard of Gloria Dei (Old Swedes' Church) in the heart of Goodisville. How many Goodis characters lived secret lives here we will never know."

Visit Shooting Pool with David Goodis by clicking here.

(image courtesy of www.davidgoodis.com)

Thursday, July 23, 2009

"The Western Film" by Charles Silver (Pyramid, 1976)

Charles Silver, who has been running the Museum of Modern Art’s Film Study Center and curating movies for over thirty years, is one of the foremost scholars and historians of Western cinema. Published in 1976, his volume The Western Film is a brief but educational and highly enjoyable journey through the development of the genre. Don’t let its length fool you – 140 pages might not seem like much, but Silver knows his movie history in-and-out and doesn’t waste words. Generously illustrated with stills, the book is enough to make you want to run out watch all of the many movies he writes about with fondness, affection, and insight.

One of the things I found most appealing about this book is that you get a real sense of what he is like, not only his tastes and sensibility, but also his values. Having had the pleasure of meeting Charles, I have to say he’s a truly generous man, someone who warmly talks about movies and enjoys discussing them openly and without pretension. He begins his book by stating his book is “highly selective and limited – a personal perspective on the subject which makes no claim to be complete or unprejudiced. I very much prefer what could be called the classical Western. I find little value or interest in those films which rebel against its traditions.” I appreciate his honestly about his tastes – it makes his discussion all the more lively. It also makes him more trustworthy; if he were to blindly extol the virtues of every Western bar none, then the book would not only lack personality, but his opinions would be far less credible.

Being a fan of silent movies, I especially appreciated Silver calling attention to people like William S. Hart, Tom Mix, and movies like The Wind and Wild and Woolly (two of my all-time favorites). He’s also quite partial to John Wayne, and particularly the films he made with John Ford (like The Searchers) and Howard Hawks (Red River and Rio Bravo in particular). The back of the book also includes a list of all the films discussed, with their directions, writers, actors, studio and release date. It’s a heck of a list, one that I am still going through myself.

Though it is currently out of print, copies of The Western Film can be found online or at used bookshops for affordable prices. Whether you are new to genre (as I was when I first read the book) or a long-time fan, it’s a wonderful book to have as part of your library.

And speaking of Westerns, head over to The Tainted Archive, where Gary Dobbs has posted a terrific interview with writer Marcus Galloway.

"Tower" by Ken Bruen and Reed Farrel Coleman (Busted Flush Press, 2009)

“Buddy, one way or another, the business we’re in, everything goes south.”

Nick and Todd grew up together on the streets of New York, and the way things are going for them, it looks like they might be fated to go down together as well. Low-level flunkies for a third-generation Irish-American gangster named Boyle, they do what they’re told without aspirations of getting anywhere in life. Eschewing the traditional motive of hubris, co-authors Ken Bruen and Reed Farrel Coleman use Tower (Busted Flush Press, 2009) to chart a very different sort of downfall, one that pays homage to the Angels With Dirty Wings archetype while taking its design of two friends diverged in a new direction at once modern, original, and extremely personal.

Bruen and Coleman have devised an inventive way to tell Nick and Todd’s stories as they begin to rise within the ranks, but ultimately fall from grace. I say “stories” because even though they are friends – inexorable even when alienated – they lead two separate lives, and suffer separately, as well. Both authors take turns narrating the same period in Nick and Todd's lives, retelling it from each of the characters’ perspectives and offering insight that the other friend remains unaware of. It is this tension of knowledge that not only creates tension between Nick and Todd, but also beckons the reader deeper and deeper into their descent. We think we know what’s going on, only to realize nothing is as simple as it seems.

Irish crime fiction maverick Ken Bruen tells the story of Nick, an Irish-American whose affection for his heritage stops at Guinness, while Brooklyn’s philosophizing flâneur Reed Farrel Coleman writes about the Todd, whose soul is half-hardboiled and half-romantic (though maybe those characteristics go hand-in-hand). What’s most remarkable about Tower is that not only do Bruen and Coleman perfectly compliment each other while retaining their own voices, but that their juxtaposition creates a literary polyphony that enriches the narrative all the more. It’s like a jam session between your favorite musicians, riffing off each other while still working together. They each get their solo, but one without the other wouldn’t be a song – together, it’s a tour de force.

Whether you’re reading Bruen's The Guards or Coleman's Redemption Street, what you find in both writers’ work is a sincere love for language. With Tower, Bruen and Colemen take their linguistics to another level, making it a natural and integral part of both the narrative as well as the characters’ own lives. Whether it’s their incessant commentary on their boss’ phony Irish accent and tendency to quote from the Bible, Nick pointing out that he uses the phrase “in extremis, so you know I’m not just some thug,” or quoting songs like “Born Under a Bad Sign,” the characters are well aware that the language one uses is a signifier of who they are.

And that, more than anything else, is what the book is about – a search for identity. Who are Nick and Todd? Though they wouldn’t admit such an existential query in public – or even to each other – it is what is deeply troubling both of them. They identify themselves through the music they listen to, the alcohol they drink, the clothes they wear, the people they hang out with. Nick shows up at the bar in fancy clothes and orders a different drink, people are confused – this isn’t the Nick they know – while Todd is forever having conflicts over his choice in baseball team. And then there is the issue of cultural heritage – Nick has his Irish past (several generations removed) and Todd has his Jewish family, yet these too fail to give them a sense of being, an idea of who they are.

Language is at the core of Tower in another way, too: the root of Nick and Todd’s problems comes from the fact that they’re not communicating the way they used to. Neither confides in each other, and they keep their anxieties and problems to themselves. Both are aware that the words coming out of each other’s mouths are empty – a verbal façade that hides hollow, untrusting phrases – but neither realizes they guilty of committing the same thing. In this sense, the title Tower takes on new connotations: instead of just being Nick’s father’s place of employment (he’s a guard at the World Trade Center), it now references that Biblical symbol, The Tower of Babel. This pillar of confusion permeates the entire narrative: characters are never whom they seem, are constantly playing roles and donning masks, even in front of the ones they love. And nor are they always willing to admit their true feelings.

Relationships, whether platonic or amorous, are fraught with veiled gestures and obscured feelings. It is only fitting that the authors quote George Pelecanos’ Right as Rain at the start of one of the chapters: “He didn’t come here for answers. There were no answers. There was only sensation. No answers, and there would be no closure.” Tower is saturated with sensation, particularly descriptions of drinking and rage, as though they were somehow a surrogate for what Nick and Todd are really searching for. Answers as to who they really are, and where they belong.

One doesn’t have to look too far beneath the crime-laden plot of Tower to find its central concern about self-discovery, fraternity and family, because they’re right the from the beginning, and they continue to appear on every page until the very last one. It’s where the emotional drive and empathy come from; and it’s why the book most affects us so.

Bruen’s prose experiments and Coleman’s soul searching synthesize in a haunting, wholly satisfying experience. Tower is a book whose driving pace urges you to read faster and faster, yet slowing down one can really savor the craft these two authors have put into this book.

Tower will be released in September by Busted Flush Press. On the Busted Flush Blog right now there is a piece by Reed Farrel Coleman talking about the genesis of the project, as well as an interview with Ken Bruen. Be sure to check them out.

As always, a few passages from the book itself:

“It took a second then it burned, oh yeah, just the way you love it, like a sweet lady rubbing your belly, the belly of the beast…jeez, I’d had three… four?... serious drinks in the last hour and was beginning to feel them. I’d be needing them.”

“Women look for love. Men look for pussy and stumble onto love. And Christ, when we stumble it’s an endless fall.”

“Rage got me high as I’d ever been. It was coke and crystal meth cooked until it turned black and thick as breakfast syrup. Excuse me, waiter, can I have some rage for my pancakes?”

“It’s hard to lose yourself when you don’t know who the fuck you are to begin with.”

“Death and me, we were no longer going to stare at each other from across the dance floor. Once you feel loss, you always feel it.”

“Change is something I never dwelt on. Now it dwells on me.”

“Sometimes you won’t find justice anywhere in the world but in the dictionary.”

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

An Unfortunate Cover

Have you ever been browsing in a bookstore when you spot the spine of the book you’ve been searching for, only to take it off shelf and realize its cover is so unattractive that it makes you change your mind? Even though the price is right, the cover is so wrong you decide to wait for a nicer edition to come along? This happened to me last night. I was browsing in Strand Bookstore when I caught sight of Howard Browne’s Halo for Satan. I really liked his Halo in Blood, and have been wanting to read more. But when I looked at the cover of the No Exit Press edition, my heart sunk. It was some garish picture of the back of a bald man’s head. And not even a good picture – just looked kind of sloppy. It was six bucks, but I’d rather invest that six into a nicer edition that I would enjoy displaying on my shelf. After I’ve read a book, I enjoy going back often and looking at the cover, flipping through the pages, remembering my favorite parts. This just seemed like something I wouldn’t want to look at ever again. Has this ever happened to you? I know we shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but should that excuse cover art from criticism? Particularly with pulp fiction, cover art seems to be such a part of the legacy that it can’t be ignored. What are your thoughts?

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Harry Whittington on Words and Writing

For The Mystery Writer’s Handbook edited by Herbert Brean (Harper and Brothers, 1956), Harry Whittington – the “King of the Paperbacks” himself – submitted a short piece entitled “Why I Write.” It was during his peak time of productivity (no less than eight novels of his were published that same year, according to David Laurence Wilson’s extensive bibliography in the new Stark House trio of To Find Cora / Like Mink, Like Murder / Body and Passion). “I love good stories whether they were written by Maxim Gorky or Max Brand,” Whittington writes – and indeed, the rest of his advice is as down-to-earth and unpretentious as that statement. Here are a few of the many things he has to offer: 

“I have the desire to write. I’ve never looked at writing as an easy job, or an escape. It was what I wanted to do. Sixteen years I worked eight hours a day at another job. I always found time to write. When I was reporting to work at 5 in the morning, sometimes I was writing until 1 A.M.” 

"By full time, I mean I now spend the eight hours i once spent on another job, plus my hobby hours, on writing. You can get an awful lot of writing done if you actually sit in front of your typewriter a full day, every day." 

“If you’re putting off writing until you have more time, or better conditions, you might as well make up your mind you’ll talk about writing forever and never write. I wrote with my daughter practicing her ‘tap dancing’ where I could ‘watch’ her, my son shooting his cap pistol or running his cars around my chair, and my wife remembering a hundred things she’d forgotten to tell me.” 

“Writing isn’t an easy business (even when you love it as I do). The more you’re conditioned to take disappointments, distractions and bad breaks, the more likely you are to get where you want to go.” 

“Get a meaty plot, give it movement, color and above all action – make it matter deep inside you."

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Stories for Sunday: Martin De Leon and Keith Rawson

I'm hoping today will be a productive day (it better be, as I have lots of work to catch up on) so, as always, I'm starting the morning by appreciating the accomplishments of others. Today's edition of Stories for Sunday is a double-feature.

First up is Martin De Leon's "1986," which was published over at Block Magazine. It's a dark story, but not about the typical crimes you might read about on this site. The crimes in De Leon's story are the ones that leave only victims and no villains: life's merciless disappointments and tragedies. The main character, Catarina Fernandez, is walking home in the rain and engages in seemingly meaningless chit-chat with her neighbor, Villoro – but even this quotidian conversation is weighted down by Catarina's deep sense of loss.

Her window screen couldn’t stop Catarina from overhearing. She stopped trying to close the window and thought about running out in the rain and shoving the water hose down Villoro’s throat.

And then she thought of her daughter again. The rain had taken her.

Click here to read Martin De Leon's "1986."

Next up is the latest from Keith Rawson – a vicious, searing piece called "The Blood, the Shattered Glass and All the Rest" published over at The Flash Fiction Offensive. Rawson, like De Leon, is investigating the unbearable pressures of everyday life, the sort that drive you over the edge and leave you with no alternatives. Even its title seems to be a bleak summation of existence, just like Jim Thompson's "This World, then the Fireworks." In Rawson's story, a cop returns home to find that his wife has decided for him that he's going to quit drinking. He begrudgingly plays along, but soon work and home-life begin to wear him down, and the itch to drink starts to return...

I wanted a beer; I wanted to drown in oceans of it.

Click here to read Keith Rawson's "The Blood, the Shattered Glass and All the Rest."

And be sure to check out both of these authors' websites, links below:
Martin De Leon's Pop, We Will Eat Your Brains and Keith Rawson's Bloody Knuckles, Callused Fingertips.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Gold Medal Books: In Their Own Words

Ever wondered what exactly Gold Medal saw in the books they published? In the December 1955 issue of Writer’s Digest (Vol. 36, No. 1), Gold Medal’s Executive Editor Inez Salinger wrote in and addressed what sort of books they were looking to publish, as well as some of the overarching characteristics of the Gold Medal line (“Taboos? We have none, really.”), a brief description of the editorial procedure, and an idea of what they paid per book. An address was also given, in case writers wanted to send in their manuscripts. The cartoon above was featured right next to the Gold Medal advertisement, so I thought I would share it as well. I think it’s pretty funny, and it also reminds me of the image of Orrie Hitt sitting at the kitchen table with his typewriter that James Reasoner described on his blog.

“We are interested, indeed, in seeing mystery fiction, the backbone of almost any soft-cover publisher’s list.

“The word ‘suspense’ keynotes our mystery policy, if we have any such thing. We have found most saleable and exciting those novels which emphasize chase, atmosphere and breathless situations rather than the chess problem or more intellectual type of puzzle. Basically, we have no cut-and-dried preferences. Recently we put out three novels in quick succession by Peter Rabe, whom we consider a bright discovery and a potential shining light of the hard-boiled school. One of our most fabulous sellers is Richard Prather, whose yarns about Shell Scott, a private eye whose tongue is always planted firmly in cheek, have sold consistently in the millions. In our experience, we have found the humorous mystery novel tricky to pull off, but Prather is one of its ablest practitioners.

“Taboos? We have none, really. We ask only for good stories powerfully told that capture the reader early in the game and hold him on the edge of his chair from there on in. To make it easier on both editor and author, we like to see at least four chapters and a well-planned outline of action to come. Our twenty-five centers consist of from 60,000 to 70,000 words, our thirty-five centers from 89,000 to 120,000. We pay on the basis of print orders – a cent a copy on the first 200,000 printed, a cent and a half on each copy thereafter. Our minimum initial print order is 200,000 copies. Scripts can be addressed to any of our editors.”

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

William Campbell Gault on Words and Writing

William Campbell Gault’s “One Foot Out of the Grave” was published by Writer’s Digest in May 1956 (Vol. 36, No. 6). Frankly, it’s depressing as hell to read. Maybe "realistic" is a better description, as it doesn't entertain any fantasies about the writing life. It’s a short memoir written in the uncommon second-person style, meaning that he is always addressing “you” even though he is discussing his own career. The conflation of himself and his readers seems significant for a number of reasons. Primarily, it makes us relate to Gault all the more – as though his story could be our story. Also, Gault seems to be giving the advice that he wishes someone would have given him as a beginner, though he seems skeptical as to whether or not he would have ever listened to such disparaging wisdom.

You can be working in a shoe factory in the middle of a great depression and not be happy. You should be happy to be working at all, but not you; you think you could be a WRITER.

Gault goes through his myriad experiences, beginning with winning a short story competition that launched the seeds of a career that slowly went nowhere for almost a decade. His goal of being the next Hemingway continually lowered until he was willing to write whatever would sell. Mysteries sold for a while, but then the pulps stopped buying. So he tried Science Fiction, but wasn’t comfortable with the genre. Juvenile sports stories, however, always sold well. His first mystery novel, Don’t Cry for Me, was rejected by everyone, but finally was picked up and even won an Edgar. Gault’s reaction? “You think you are big now, but you are nothing.”

If anything, what is so surprising about this article is its discouraging, embittered tone. The “you” in the article never gives up – but it seems that Gault wonders why anyone would continue through such hardship, disappointment, and failure. Even success for Gault is tinged with the knowledge that it not everlasting, nor assured to ever happen again.

Still, Gault ends on a slightly upbeat note (comparatively speaking). I will quote the final four paragraphs of the article in whole as they are not only the most encouraging passages of the article, but I think it’s the closest Gault comes to explaining what kept him going through all the hard years.

Remember this, if you have written a couple dozen short stories and sold them to national markets, the chances are you know as much about the business as many of the editors you are trying to sell to. You are going to have to write what they want, but always be sure the paths they want you to take are reasonable. The chances are they know what is salable and they must be listened to. But only you can determine what is distinctly yours and that is your road to the ultimate success. Editors come and go constantly and the next man may love what the last man despised.

It’s all taste and opinion and one man is different from the next. Mr. Faulkner might not appreciate Mr. Spillane, but that is also true in reverse.

None of this need concern you. Out there, beyond the lighted limits of the place you sit and type, somebody is waiting for the kind of thing you write. Writing can never be more than communication and should never be less.

So what do you do? You keep typing.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Jack Kerouac on Words and Writing

Inspired by Duane Swierczynski’s series Legends of the Underwood, I’ve decided to start my own collection of advice from the pros called On Words and Writing.

For the inaugural entry, I’m posting a poem by Jack Kerouac called “Credo” that was published in Atop an Underwood: Early Stories and Other Writings (Penguin, 2000). All through high school I had this tacked on the wall behind my desk, right above my typewriter. There was something reassuring about knowing whenever I got stuck, all I had to do was look up, and it would be there. I left it back home in Maine when I moved to Brooklyn in 2005, but now I think it’s time to put it back up again. So, I thought I would share it with all of you all first. I hope it does as much for you as it has for me, all these years.


by Jack Kerouac

Remember above all things, Kid, that to write is not difficult, not painful, that it comes out of you with ease, that you can whip up a little tale in no time, that when you are sincere about it, that when you want to impress a truth, it is not difficult, not painful, but easy, graceful, full of smooth power, as if you were a writing machine with a store of literature that is boundless, enormous, endless, and rich. For it is true; this is so. Do not forget it in your gloomier moments. Make your stuff warm, drive it home American-wise, don't mind critics, don't mind the stuffy academic theses of scholars, they don't know what they're taking about, they're way of the track, they're cold; you're warm, you're red hot, you can write all day, you know what you know, like Halper; you remember that, Kid, and when you feel as if you cannot write, as if it is no use, as if life is no good, read this over and realize that you can do a lot of good in this world by turning out truths like these, by spreading warmth, by trying to preach living for life's sake, not the intellectual way, but the warm way, the way of love, the way which says: Brothers, I greet you with open arms, I accept your frailties, I offer you my frailties, let us gather and run the gamut of rich human existence. Remember, Kid, the ease, the grace, the glory, the greatness of your art; remember it, never forget. Remember passion. Do not forget, do not forsake, do not forget. It is there, the order and the purpose; there is chaos, but not in you, not way down deep in your heart, no chaos, only ease, grace, beauty, love, greatness.....Kid, you can whip up a little tale, a little truth, you can mop up the floor with a little tale in no time; it is a cinch, you are the flow of smooth thrumming power, you are a writer, and you can turn out some mean stuff, and you will turn out tons of it, because it is you, and do not forget it, Kid, do not forget it; please, please Kid, do not forget yourself; save that, save that, preserve yourself; turn out those mean little old tales by the dozens, it is easy, it is grace, do it American-wise, drive it home, sell truth, for it needs to be sold. Remember, Kid, what I say to you tonight; never forget it, read this over in your gloomier moments and never, never forget.....never, never, never forget.....please, please, Kid please…

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Stories for Sunday: "Running to Zero" by Jason Duke (Thuglit/A Twist of Noir)

First off, many thanks to Keith Rawson for suggesting I befriend Jason Duke on Facebook. I remembered his name from Keith’s blog, so I searched him out online and found a bunch of stories that knocked me on my ass in a big way. Especially “Running to Zero,” which I am featuring for this week’s edition of Stories for Sunday.

Originally published in Thuglit #30 and reprinted as A Twist of Noir #97, “Running to Zero” does for today’s world what Falling Down did for the early 1990s. It’s the ugliest, truest aspects of our anxiety, anger, and failure, writ uncomfortably large. “There are last place trophies for everything,” Duke reminds us, and his protagonist – Gerald Tyler – is none to happy to have come in last place in life. Deep in debt from online gambling, out of work for punching his boss and co-workers (honestly, they deserved it), and sick with the West Nile virus, Tyler is at once resentful and envious of the wealth, success, and health around him. A true and uncompromisingly noir protagonist, Duke is alienated from society in the most extreme fashion, which only fuels his sociopathic tendencies even more. He dreams of sitting in a mansion, order delivery, sitting online, and never seeing another awful human being in his life.

He wants to escape from that world.

And that, of course, is impossible.

“You run to make decisions.

You run to make choices.

You run to blame people for the consequences when things don’t work out right.

Gerald believes he is free to choose."

And so Gerald has made a choice. He’s grabbed an assault rifle and a handful of dynamite, and he’s making his way to Albertson’s supermarket…

Gripping and jaw droppingly-bleak, “Running to Zero” is exactly what I want to wake up to on a Sunday morning – a strong, bitter dose of reality to kick me back into gear. Hell, this is way better than black coffee any way you look at it.

Read “Running to Zero” by Jason Duke here at A Twist of Noir or here at Thuglit.

Friday, July 10, 2009

"Thirty Corpses Every Thursday" by Fredric Brown (Dennis McMillan Publications, 1986)

The last time I wrote about Fredric Brown, Gordon Harries pointed out that it wasn’t a kick that I was on – it was a bender. Here I am again, a couple months later, writing about another collection of Brown’s short stories. This one is Thirty Corpses Every Thursday: Fredric Brown in the Detective Pulps Vol. 6, published by Dennis McMillan in 1986. It collects eight of Brown’s inimitable tales, all written between 1940 and 1943.

What makes this edition so special – apart from Brown’s inimitable, wonderful, and offbeat stories (he was not only prolific, but also consistent with the high quality of his stories, which is very good news for fans of his) – is that William Campbell Gault wrote the introduction. Himself a pulp maestro, he was both a colleague and friend of Brown’s. Gault eschews the typical laudatory introduction and instead contextualizes what it meant to be a burgeoning/struggling writer for the pulps at that time, like writing for fly-by-night sex magazines when nothing else was available. “I think the dirtiest word we used was ‘curvaceous.’ They bought longer stories than the syndicates and paid the exorbitant price of one third of a cent a word for them.”

Gault also describes a writer’s community in which they all looked out for each other. They helped get agents, or to get manuscripts in people’s hands; they gave rides when someone needed them; and they played golf for small stakes when they weren’t writing – which wasn’t often, as they were always pounding the keys. “It was a better time, those days, depression and war notwithstanding. We wrote and they bought. We wrote fast; they bought cheaply. But they bought. They didn’t assume it would make them rich; all they asked for was reasonable returns and reader interest.”

Ending on note at once somber and optimistic, Gault comments on the changing reception to pulp literature over the years. “It would be comfortable to think that the garbage that leads the best seller lists is a new trend in America. It isn’t. Check your old World Almanacs to confirm that. The best sellers of those years are no longer being reprinted; many pulp writers are. Do we have to die to be appreciated? It doesn’t matter. We are doing what we want to do and getting paid for it. There is no higher reward than that.”

As sincere as I think Gault is, there’s something hidden in that last remark, a secret anxiety that plagues all writers. The fear of being forgotten, or not being read – or not being able to be read. There’s a dual responsibility between readers and publishers to help keep literature alive. Readers must remember, and they must recommend – which is why Patti Abbott’s “Friday's Forgotten Books” initiative is so crucial. But, the work must be kept in circulation, and that’s not always the case. This edition of Brown’s short stories, as with all of his volumes in the McMillan line, has been out of print for about twenty years. Luckily, this volume was released in paperback, and for around thirty bucks you can still pick up used copies. Other volumes appeared only in hardcover, and those are far more expensive, and much harder to come by. Some are available through interlibrary loan – otherwise, we are left to pass along our copies to friends, to share what we have collected and what we love. Ultimately, this is one of the responsibilities of readers, writers, fans, critics – no one is exempt. You read the book, and you like it, then share why it is you value it. The more you share, the more you ensure that the book’s life will be sustained.

On that note, here’s a listing of the stories included in the collection, their original bibliographic information, and a quote and brief synopsis for each. The best story, in my opinion, is not the title story, but “A Matter of Death.” It shows Brown’s experimental side, as he alternates seamlessly between the point of view of the murderer, the victim, and the oblivious patrol officer on duty that night. As a literary device it not only heightens the suspense for the reader, but also forces us to connect to all three characters in different ways. Our experience with the story is not only much richer, but also darker (our sympathy is not so simple or straightforward) and funnier (as omnipotent readers, we see all the confusion that the characters aren’t fully aware of).

On with the quotes!

“Murder Draws a Crowd” (Detective Fiction Weekly, July 27, 1940)
“In the heart of the crowd across the street, a woman screamed. It was a scream of sheer horror.”
A series of mysterious ads draws large crowds to the Herald-News Building, and in the midst of the hubbub a murder is committed. Yet no witnesses can be found.

“I’ll See You at Midnight” (Clues, November 1942)
“I took a drink of the coffee, dark, black, and unsweetened. It burned like hell going down. But there were other things inside me that burned worse.”
Larry Bonnert lost his job, his wife, and his self-respect when he failed to put the gangster Dixie Wilman behind bars. Now he has a chance to get it all back, but the price is steep: risking his own life to put a bullet in Dixie right in front of his gang.

“Death’s Dark Angel” (Thrilling Detective, May 1943)
“Maybe it was just as well that didn’t know what he was headed for, that evening.”
Walter Hanson shows up to his bookie to collect on a one dollar bet and winds up with a couple of gangsters thinking he committed murder and stole their ten-thousand dollars.

“Thirty Corpses Every Thursday” (Detective Tales, December 1941)
“I started to thinking back and I felt lower than a mole’s instep.”
Two of the last three busses to Phoenix have gone off-road, killing all thirty passengers. Bill knows it can’t be coincidence but can’t prove otherwise, so reluctantly he gets behind the wheel for the midnight road, ready for anything…

“A Matter of Death” (Thrilling Detective, November 1944)
“He surprised me by falling out of the closet with a thud that seemed to shake the whole hotel. He was dead as a salted mackerel, and he hadn’t got into that closet and died of heart failure waiting for me.”
Getting off the bus in Cincinnati for a quick beer turns out to be a bad idea for Jack, because soon there’s a corpse in his hotel room, and a warrant out for his arrest.

“A Fine Night For Murder” (Detective Tales, November 1942)
“To hell with the kid, let him die. Mary’s and Delaney’s kid, and the hell with it.”
A bored police officer patrols the seemingly boring streets while unbeknownst to him a deadly reunion is shaping up when an ex-boyfriend just out of jail comes to town looking for revenge.

“Satan’s Search Warrant” (10-Story Detective, September 1942)
"Big Ben Hayden woke up, not screaming, but wanting to scream. Two ghouls, each taller than a house, had been fighting each other to decide which of them would eat Ben for an hors d’oeurve…”
Police officer Ben Hayden resents being woken up to go back to work. Even more he resents having to walk through the rain to investigate an accidental death. And then he realizes it’s murder, and that he’s at the wrong end of several guns. Now he really wishes he didn’t pick up that phone.

“Death Insurance Payment” (Ten Detective Aces, October 1943)
“And if the man on the floor of the closet was Larkin, it was quite obvious why he had not straightened the kitchen or fixed the furnace. He was dead, quite dead.”
Henry Smith shows up to a house to sell life insurance and winds up with two dead bodies on his hands – and three new customers. Too bad they’re also the only suspects.

[Brown, Fredric. Thirty Corpses Every Thursday: Fredric Brown in the Detective Pulps Vol. 6. Cover by William L. McMillan. Miami Beach, FL: Dennis McMillan Publications, 1986.]

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Interview with Ed Gorman on "The Midnight Room"

Ed Gorman’s latest novel, The Midnight Room (available here), is an uncompromising but unquestionably human story about vulnerability and villainy. Its story focuses on two brothers on the police force whose search for a serial killer and a young girl who might be his next victim tears them apart, and threatens to destroy their relationships to their family, friends, and co-workers as well. You can read my review of the book here.

Recently I had the pleasure of asking Gorman some questions about The Midnight Room and his thoughts on writing. Here’s what he had to say.

Pulp Serenade:
Let’s start with the dedication page. You call The Midnight Room your Gold Medal book, and then dedicate it to Peter Rabe, Stephen Marlowe, William Campbell Gault, and Robert Colby. What was your relationship to these writers, and how do you see your book as being influenced by the Gold Medal tradition?

Ed Gorman: These were writers I knew personally. They were friends of mine. In fact, Peter Rabe was planning on catching a train to Cedar Rapids where I live and spending a week with Carol and I. Then he saw a doc because of his persistent cough and found that he had advanced lung cancer. Steve and I talked many, many times on the phone. As for the Gold Medal tradition...everybody from Malcolm Braly to Wade Miller wrote big multiple viewpoint novels for GM. I wanted to do that with The Midnight Room.

PS: What was it that initially sparked this particular story and compelled you to write it?

EG: I wanted to write a story where the pursuer was at least as evil as the pursued. And both of them are among the nastiest villains I've ever created.

PS: When Michael Scanlon is interviewing the missing girl’s mother, he comments, ”This was one of those stories that were so ridiculously dark they were perversely funny.” Was this intended as your own comment on The Midnight Room?

EG: Well, I don't know about “perversely funny,” but I certainly meant the pursuit to be ironic. And I don't just mean by Scanlon's brother. The press, the mother of the kidnapped girl, the gutless mayor. Everybody plays a role in cases like these and that role – despite what their official role might seem to be – is to cover their asses and exploit it for personal benefit. Look at the woman (and this isn't the first incident like this) who set up a website to raise money for her daughter's cancer surgery. She raised a lot and spent it all on herself. I remember the mayor of that city using the mother and daughter as props in his re-election campaign.

PS: The Midnight Room has a very unique structure to it. By disclosing the killer’s identity so early on, the book is the exact opposite of a “whodunit” – instead, it’s more of a “whoknowsit.” It’s a daring choice that, in my opinion, makes the main characters seem rather powerless and vulnerable. What was your intention?

EG: Well, the main characters are powerless and vulnerable. They refuse to believe what should be pretty clear. I wanted to create the suspense by having them slowly come to the truth while all around them the two villains were going about their usual business. I'm not much for superhero cops who brag or bully their way through cases. I've known a fair number of cops over the years and I wanted to depict cops here realistically. And I think there's a good deal of humor in the book, too. One of my intentions was to show that Leo Rice, another one of the bad guys, is basically Wiley E. Coyote or Yosemite Sam. He really, really wants to hurt people and kill them. He's just not very good at it is all. You read about criminals like this all the time. I'll always remember a 20-20 I saw years ago. Guy wanted his wife killed on the cheap. He found a want ad in some gun magazine written in code – the code being this guy in Georgia would do anything you asked if the price was right. They got together on the phone. Turned out the would-be killer wanted at least $75 and a round-trip ticket back to a small town in Georgia. He was, by the way, eighteen years old. Now would YOU hire him if you wanted somebody killed? I sure as hell wouldn't. But he was hired and he attempted on three different occasions to kill the wife. Once by stabbing her, once by shooting her, once by bludgeoning her. The last time, if I remember correctly, she was waiting for him. She pulled a gun and chased him out of her house. Then she sicced the cops on her husband. This is “Stupid Criminals” writ large. The problem is these morons are just as deadly as the more accomplished ones. They have no compunction about killing some convenience store clerk for a couple hundred bucks. I wanted all this to be a part of Leo Rice's personality.

PS: Your characters, both major and minor ones, are faced with tough choices – and often they make the wrong decisions. Sometimes they can rectify their errors, but things don’t always turn out all right in the end. How do you balance these elements of tragedy without making the novel seem too hopeless and keeping it enjoyable for readers?

EG: This is a dark book, no doubt about it. But I don't think it's a cynical book. There are no swaggering Dirty Harry cops or genius CSI cops but there are decent people trying to do their job properly. To me the ending – which seems to shock some people – seems realistic given what's gone before. And if you follow most murder cases they end up with the families of the deceased as they do here.

PS: Is there anyone in The Midnight Room you would label a traditional hero? Or do you think it is necessary for a story to have one anymore?

EG: I'll tell you, if you look at most of my books whether they're mysteries or horror or westerns, you'll have a hard time finding a traditional hero. Traditional heroes bore my ass off. First of all I find them very difficult to believe in. And secondly they don't offer much latitude for the writer. They have to live by this unspoken traditional hero code. I suppose this comes from reading Mickey Spillane when I was so young. Hammer's at least as crazy as the people he goes after. Then I began reading the Gold Medal writers. You'll never find a traditional hero in Peter Rabe for instance. Never. And Stephen King influenced me as well. One reason I like his books so much is that his protagonists are always people of parts, men and women alike, good and sometimes bad and never heroic in the simple sense. Look at Cujo and the complex people we meet in the course of the story. That's my kind of writing.

PS: When writing, do you always know in advance what your characters are going to do – or are capable of doing? Do they ever surprise you?

EG: It's painful not to know where you're going. I stall out, I back track, I literally get migraines worrying about the next day's work. But this is offset by the pleasure that the book's surprises give me, surprises I've never been able to outline in advance. I use the method Ed McBain/Evan Hunter said he found helpful. I do three or four chapters to see a) if I want to write the book and b) to see if I have any ideas for making it fresh in some way. If I decide to continue I start making rough notes about the thrust of the book though a lot of these get discarded because something better (hopefully) comes along in the day-to-day writing.

PS: I’ve read that before you became a novelist, you worked for a long time in advertising. Had you always wanted to be a writer, and how did your experiences in advertising affect your writing?

EG: Truly, the only thing I've ever wanted to be was a writer. I discovered Jack London when I was in third or fourth grade and then Ray Bradbury and my fate was fixed. As for advertising, I'm sure I just haven't met the right people...but I've talked to two or three dozen writers over the years who worked in advertising or public relations and they hated it. Despised it. My feelings are the same. I used to think that I learned at least a few rudimentary things about writing from ad work but looking back now I don't think so. You can be funny and you can be cute but it's spurious pleasure. For a writer it's empty work that has no bearing on fiction.

PS: What is a typical “writing” day like for you? Do you have any particular routines you follow?

EG: There's BC and AC. Before cancer I tried to write two thousand words a day. After the cancer (I have multiple myeloma; treatable but incurable) and right now the biggest problem is fatigue. So these days I shoot for a thousand, sometimes fifteen hundred words a day, generally seven days a week. I feel guilty when I don't accomplish this. It's easier for me to hit my mark than to face the guilt. This comes from thirty years of doing nothing else hitting my mark. Even when I was at Mayo getting a stem cell harvest (along with my friend Jim Rigney, aka Robert Jordan, who was getting one, too) I managed to write five hundred words a day. Then I'd collapse and watch one of the six channels the motel offered – three of them being religious. (I drove my poor wife Carol nuts. One station ran King of The Hill three times a day. Given a choice between sending money to some religious sharpie or watching three episodes a day of King, I became the most devout fan that show's ever had.) After a book's done I set it aside and then come back to it fresh for the final rewrite.

PS: Ray Bradbury once said that the way he would edit his short stories was to rewrite them from memory, and then compare the drafts. What is your own editing process like (whether for short stories or novels)?

EG: I try to make the first draft as finished as I can make it. I used to throw out entire manuscripts. Now I just throw out chapters and scenes. My friend Linda Siebels is my first editor. She is ruthless and witty (“Well, that sentence set the English language back four hundred years!”) and she makes going over and over things fun. By the time she's finished we've done three drafts or so. Same with short stories. She keeps me humble with those, too.

PS: Lastly, what’s next for you? Any upcoming projects you can divulge?

EG: I just finished a follow-up to my political novel Sleeping Dogs. I meant to write it in the same serio-comic way I did Sleeping but it just wouldn't bend to my wishes. It's a more somber book. Right now I'm writing the last of the Sam McCains. This is book eight or nine in the series – I forget which – and with it old Sam retires. I'm not by nature a series writer and this is the longest running series I've ever done. As much as I like Rex Stout, I don't know how he wrote forty or fifty novels about Nero Wolfe.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

"Bury Me Deep" by Megan Abbott (Simon and Schuster, 2009)

“Says you brought him ruin and hellfire and yet he loves you still.”

Marion, sprung back to vivid life, looked up fast and wanted to laugh. “Brought him to ruin. Oh, isn’t that a fairy tale, a dreamy little love book to end all.”

In Bury Me Deep (Simon & Schuster, 2009), her fourth novel, Megan Abbott buries one of the longstanding mythologies of noir literature: it’s all the fault of the femme fatale. Exhuming the spirits of so many fallen women condemned by male protagonists who felt threatened and persecuted, Abbott turns the tables and tells the story from another perspective. Instead of the woman who enters the man’s life and brings him to ruin, what if the story were told from her perspective? What happens if you hold a mirror up to the quintessence of noir? What will the reflection reveal?

Abbott’s answer is that the mirror only gets darker – much, much darker. Written as though in a rhapsodic fever, Bury Me Deep is her most absorbing and affecting novel yet. Her characters are a doomed and tragic lot on an irreversible decline to despair, and no one is further down the path than Marion Seeley. Her husband is an ex-junkie doctor who has lost his medical license and left her alone in a new city to fend for herself while he takes a job in Mexico and tries to get clean. Working as in a medical clinic, Marion is taken under the wing of Louise Mercer, a nurse who knows all the ins and outs of not only the clinic – but also the city, and its many secrets. Naïve at first, Marion slowly allows Louise and her companion Ginny to introduce her to the seedier side of life, and gradually she becomes consumed by myriad forms of pleasure and vice. And then she is introduced to Joe Lanigan, and everything changes.

You are Pandora, Joe Lanigan had said. You came to town with that beautiful little box I had to, had to open.

Their affair devours Marion’s life, threatening her job as well as her relationship to Louise and Ginny. Passion turns to jealousy and uncontrollable rage, and soon Marion finds herself on the run to Los Angeles to dispose of the bodies, and all the while only one thought clouds her mind: getting Joe back, no matter what it takes.

Based off the real-life case of “Trunk Murderess” Winnie Ruth Judd, a notorious Depression-era headliner, Abbott uses fiction to investigate the untold stories and motivations that never came out during the trial, or which remained hidden behind closed doors and cold, dead lips. What were the forces acting upon her – environmental pressures? broken promises from manipulative men? social taboos that prejudiced the city against her? – that influenced her actions and decisions, and buried her so deep in desperation that there was no way out except to go deeper, always deeper.

While Marion may be the central protagonist of the novel, arguably the most indelibly haunting portrait is that of Louise and Ginny. Unlike Marion, these two stick to their debauched lifestyle not because any emotional need or uncontrollable desire, but because of their financial plight. Their “favors” to the men around town are rewarded with radios, medicine, food, and various items they couldn’t otherwise afford – some are luxuries, others are essentials. Theirs, too, is a strong bond based on caring – at times they seem like lovers, at others like sisters, and still at others like a mother and child. Having seen the worst aspects of humanity, they survived and came out on top, only to go back down those depraved alleys whenever necessary. They emerged not always unscathed, not always uncorrupted, but aware of the way the world works. Marion, on the other hand, is unable to cope with this sordid knowledge, which eats at her conscience like a pestilence until she’s left sinking alone in an ungrounded, immoral universe with nothing to hold on to.

Complementing Abbott’s innovative narrative approach is her singular prose style, a concoction equal parts hardboiled, cinematic, and poetics, all wrapped in the down-and-dirty grit of true crime reporting. The increasingly fevered passion of Marion seems to infect the novel as it moves from ecstasy to fury, giving the impression that is in first-person even though it is really in third-person. Whereas someone like Ken Bruen is pushing the hardboiled aesthetic to its minimalist limits, Abbott takes the opposite approach, suffusing her novels (and short stories) with eloquent expressions and revelations that would be despairing were they not so gracefully put. A few of my favorite passages are excerpted below.

The book is released today, July 7th – be sure to pick it up as soon as possible. I give it my highest recommendation, and it’s sure to be one of the most enduring releases of the year. Abbott is currently on tour with Theresa Schwegel, and the two of them are crossing the country in support of their latest books. Head out and support them, and buy their books. More info on their tour is located here.

And now for the quotes:

“She wondered, as she kept her eyes on the hotel, which sprawled a full city block and had a front canopy of gold, if this awfulness in her was new, a spell cast, or something inside her that he had stoked or merely touched and watched her unfold.”

“For some things there can be no forgiveness, nor even words. Some things are meant only to be fevers in the brain.”

“But then she thought about her own: here a man with a way of smiling so and doffing hat and tilting head just so. These accumulations of gesture and a tender word or two and then she pliant on any bed, seat cushion, what have you. Well, if that wasn’t a weakness, what was?”

“Marion, there are things you are sure you’d never do, Louise had said to her once. Until you have.”

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Stories for Sunday: "Greta at the Track" by Christopher Grant (Thrillers Killers 'n' Chillers, 2009)

She crossed her legs, looked over at Teddy and smiled.

Maybe my luck is changing, Teddy thought.

Think again, Teddy. Over at Thrillers Killers 'n' Chillers, A Twist of Noir editor and owner Christopher Grant offers up a story of his own called "Greta at the Track." It's a tight, finely constructed piece of flash fiction that clocks in at just under 600 words, and nothing goes better with your morning coffee than a quick, concentrated dose of crime fiction.

Teddy is the perfect name for a character who is certainly feeling the "squeeze." Down on his luck and deep in debt to his loan shark, Teddy is a terminal loser with all the wrong habits: blondes, betting, and a terminal belief that things will turn around for him. And he thinks today is the day, so with his last hundred and eighty dollars in his pocket, he throws it all on one horse and waits for it to come in.

Read "Greta at the Track" by Christopher Grant here at Thrillers Killers 'n' Chillers.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

"Fires That Destory" by Harry Whittington (Gold Medal, 1951)

When we think of the heyday of pulp fiction, we think of short but powerful novels, pared down to the bare necessities. No wasted words, nothing extraneous to slow down the fevered pace of the novel that increases with each page turn. Unrelenting characters in a merciless world where darkness reigns even during the day. Workhorse writers pounding the keys 10, 12 hours a day, tirelessly churning out book after book, story after story. Basically, we’re thinking of Harry Whittington, whose tightly coiled tales of doomed desire were amongst the most concise, elegant, and tense of his time. As Ed Gorman wrote, “Back in the 1950s you could run but you couldn’t hide from Harry Whittington.”

A fitting subtitle for Fires that Destroy would be “Sympathy for the Femme Fatale.” Even though it was originally published by Gold Medal in 1951, Harry Whittington’s novel still feels fresh and modern in many ways, particularly because he doesn’t follow the standard operating procedure, and approaches one of the most foundational noir archetypes from a new angle. Instead of telling the story of a man who hires a secretary who robs and kills him, Whittington inverts the equation and examines the story from her point of view. He poses the question, “Who really is the victim here?” and in the process humanizes the femme fatale to the point that such a label hardly seems appropriate.

Bernice Harper knows how to survive. Resourceful and intelligent, she’s struggled her whole life: against illness and poverty, against a society that deemed her unattractive, and against bosses that pass her over for her more voluptuous co-workers. She knows how the world works, and she’s gotten so low that she’s willing to play by its nasty, amoral rules. While working as a private secretary to a blind businessman, she discovers a cache of $24,000 hidden away inside of a hollowed-out book. Knowing his tendency to drink, she develops a plan to get him good and soused, push him down the stairs, and get away with the money.

And get away with it she does. But the $24,000 doesn’t buy her the life she wants. Sure, she can get freedom, nice clothes, pretty makeup, and even a swell-looking bank teller named Carlos that puts movie stars to shame. When the two of them hop down to Florida to elope, they both carry their ghosts with them. Bernice is haunted by nightmares of her crime, while Carlos is being hounded by debt collectors that want their money. Alienating the unhappy couple even more is Carlos’ inability to satisfy Bernice’s sexual longings, and Bernice’s growing desperation when she finds she can’t control either his carousing or gambling addictions.

Who can blame her for what she does? Certainly not Whittington, whose uncanny ability to convey the psychological anguish of his characters has rarely been more affecting. Whereas some of Whittington’s other novels – like A Ticket to Hell, You’ll Die Next, and Mourn the Hangman – followed innocent protagonists who must descend into the netherworld in order to restore (relative) normalcy to their lives, here Whittington takes us on a very different journey. We follow Bernice’s every action and thought so as to be complicit in not only her guilt, but also her pleasure and reward. Whittington arouses a very discomforting sympathy towards Bernice, the sort that one might expect from one of Jim Thompson’s novels like Pop. 1280, the important difference being that Thompson puts us in the mind of sociopaths, whereas Whittington’s criminal is a normal person like you or me.

Fires That Destroy is a suitably poetic title not only for a novel about a character who is slowly consumed by dissatisfaction and insatiability, but also for noir fiction en masse. The pressures driving Bernice aren’t extraordinary or hard to comprehend – they’re the same anxieties and difficulties that most of us face throughout our lives. Work, money, loneliness – these things fester and grow, mutating until they take control of our thoughts and actions. Until they destroy our hopes and dreams, our futures. Depression is a handy word to describe this process. It’s our struggle to not let this baggage get the best of it. What noir literature at its best allows us to do is to go to a place where the darkness can safely overtake us temporarily. But after 150 pages or so, we are able to return to our lives, disturbed by what we’ve experienced, relieved to be back in our own lives that we wanted to escape from. The irony, of course, is that we never escaped at all – that while reading we never lost sight of ourselves and our own lives.

As always, a few quotes from the book:

“A leper doesn’t welcome another leper in the world of the well.”

“He had lost his glasses in the fall. His empty, sightless eyes, white as slugs, were fixed on her at a crazy angle, because his head was twisted over his left shoulder.”

“Her daughter, Francie, was a lovely brunette girl. She appeared slightly startled at the facts of life – or perhaps it was the way she plucked her eyebrows.”

“She spread her fingers wide and taut, closing the over Carlos’ like a vise. That was the way she wanted to hold him.”

“Oh, she’d got away with murder, and she had Lloyd’s hidden money. But she had walked into hell: the hell of frustration. The kind of frustration that drove you insane. You knew what you wanted, you had it right with you, but it was rotten in the middle. It was no good. It was desire and excitement and sweet agony and it was always frustrated.”

[Whittington, Harry. Fires That Destroy. Gold Medal, 1951. Cover artist: unknown. Reprinted by Black Lizard Books, 1988. Cover artist: Charles Fuhrman.]
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