Monday, August 31, 2009

Books I am Looking Forward To Reading

I know we all have ever-growing TBR piles (and, in some cases, many of them), but that doesn't stop us from eagerly anticipating new releases. Here are just a few of the recent and upcoming books that I am looking forward to reading.

What about you - any books you are particularly excited for?

Hunt through the Cradle of Fear by Charles Ardai (Leisure Books)

I really enjoyed the first book in the series, Hunt at the Well of Eternity by James Reasoner (interviewed here), and Ardai's three entries in the Hard Case lineup (Little Girl Lost, Songs of Innocence, and Fifty-to-One) are among the best of the bunch, so this should be exciting.

Losers live Longer by Russell Atwood (Hard Case Crime)

Been hearing good things about this from a lot of different people. Plus, the horizontal art by Robert McGinnis is terrific. This one I definitely need to have on my shelf.

The Disassembled Man by Nate Flexer (New Pulp Press)

The best first paragraph to a review I've read all year comes from Jedidiah Ayres. As soon as I read it, I knew I had to get this book. "A wince-inducing front row seat to a soul shredding. It’s so unrelentingly dark, so hopeless and dank, that when the humor rears its fugly head you’ll want to wretch because you laughed. You will hate yourself for those laughs. But you will laugh. And then puke. And maybe chuckle sickly for a few days. And throw up in your mouth a bit. It's not funny. Sort of though."

Death Ground by Ed Gorman (Leisure Books)

Gorman's crime fiction is some of the best stuff out there right now. And word is that his Westerns can be even darker. If you haven't read his latest, The Midnight Room, check it out. (And here's an interview I did with Gorman earlier this summer.)

Between the Dark and the Daylight edited by Ed Gorman and Martin Greenberg (Tyrus Books)

Hell of a lineup of writers for this anthology - the ones I am most looking forward to are Patti Abbott, Charles Ardai, Bill Crider, Megan Abbott, Martin Edwards, Doug Allyn, Bill Pronzini, and Joyce Carol Oates. And that's not even a third of the authors included.

Panic Attack by Jason Starr (Minotaur)

I started the summer off with Fake I.D. (Hard Case Crime) and now, at summer's close, Panic Attack is released. Great way to bookend the season, right? This one I already picked up when he was speaking at The Mysterious Bookshop in Manhattan. Really fun event, and I got the book signed. Yeah, I'm a nerd, I think going to a book reading and getting books signed makes for an exciting week (if not month). Anyway, this book is sure to be awesome and twisted.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Stories for Sunday: Paul D. Brazill and Sandra Seamans

Sorry for the absence here on Pulp Serenade – tried to take a little vacation, but even up in Maine the work caught up with me. Back in New York, trying to catch up with everything, in particular blog land. So, for my return post, here are a couple of stories that both share the same bitter sentiment:

Ain’t memory a bitch?

Over at Blink Ink Paul D. Brazill exhibits another example of his distinctive brand of compact noir with "Cold Night in Hell". No one else writes them this short, this dark, and this good. Head over there now and check it out.

A couple weeks ago I mentioned Sandra Seamans’ “Survival Instincts”, an edgy thriller about a young girl hiding from a gang of ruthless killers. This week, she’s back with another stellar story over at Beat to a Pulp that shows her versatility. “Midnight Showdown” is a Western, but don’t expect any grand desert landscapes or fertile plains, as Seamans supplants these with the foreboding shadows of noir. When sheriff Tom Gage steps out of the saloon for his nightly rounds, the last person he expects to see is Frank Martin, a man from his past that Tom thought he had put behind him.

Funny how the past has a way of sneaking up on you. And always at the least opportune moments.

“Midnight Showdown” shows Seamans’ excellent skill at compression. She packs two lifetimes of unspoken conflict and repressed confrontation into this single moment, when both men finally confront the truths about each other and themselves.

"They faced each other, both men easing the folds of their coats behind their gun butts. Blood brothers, bitter enemies. The rain broke as their pistols flashed in the night."

Read Sandra Seamans' "Midnight Showdown" here at Beat to a Pulp.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Forgotten Movies: The Housemaid (1960)

For Patti Abbott's "Friday's Forgotten Movies" I am writing about a South Korean thriller called The Housemaid (1960). Fans of Alfred Hitchcock or Henri-Georges Clouzot's Diabolique would really enjoy this one. You can watch it free legally on The Auteurs - it is a very good quality print, for the most part. This review was originally published in The L Magazine.

Recognized as one of the classics of South Korean cinema, Kim Ki-young's The Housemaid (1960) is finally making its long-awaited video release on two formats: a DVD from the Korean Federation of Film Archives, and online courtesy of The Auteurs (where it is, as of now, free to stream). Its psycho-sexual tension suggests some fusion of Henri-Georges Clouzot and Shohei Imamura, though Kim's meticulous mise-en-scene is far more claustrophobic, and his narrative goes far deeper into the recesses of his characters' neuroses. As soon as the movie starts, with music instructor Dong-sik (Kim Jin-kyu) discussing a recent case of one man's affair with his maid, it's as though the main character's private fears are projected outward, infesting his every gesture and every last inch of his home.

Life as Dong-sik knows it begins to fall apart when he hires the titular housemaid to assist his pregnant wife. While his wife and kids are away on vacation, he receives word that a former female pupil has killed herself over unrequited love for her music instructor. Dong-sik then finds himself in a compromising affair with the housemaid whom he has impregnated. Threatening to expose his infidelity, the housemaid holds the moral reputation of the family for ransom, awakening dormant murderous and sexual impulses of which everyone — even the children — are guilty.

Filming the story almost entirely in a cluttered, half-finished home, Kim Ki-young makes full use of narrow corridors and glass-paneled sliding doors to emphasize the sense of global paranoia that runs rampant throughout The Housemaid. Filming through chairs, banisters and windows, he turns the home into an inescapable prison of unrepressed passions. Once the skeletons come out of the closet with a vengeance in the film's second half, it is as though the outside world ceases to exist. This pulp-chamber drama reminds of something that Gil Brewer might have penned for that publisher of lurid poetics Gold Medal. In fact, both Brewer's 13 French Street (1951) and The Housemaid both share a common nightmare of corruption of the middle class home and the perversion of its moral system. What the male protagonists perceive as the threat of the femme fatale is actually the manifestation of their fantasies — murder and infidelity are but means of escape — and their ultimate horror is the realization of more than just their own complicity in their downfall, but that the devastation has widespread consequences. And though they were unable to admit it earlier, this is precisely what they wanted all along.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

NoirCon Blog

If you haven’t checked out Lou Boxer’s NoirCon Blog yet, you’re missing out on a superb collection of essays, memoirs, and even the occasional poem, all of which investigate the mythic persona that is “David Goodis.” Among the most iconic of noir writers, he still remains one of the most enigmatic. His novels suggest a crestfallen life spent wrestling with personal failure, and while certain facts have surfaced to partially corroborate this viewpoint (his failure in Hollywood and subsequent retreat to live with is family for the duration of his all-too-short life), we don’t yet know enough to substantiate it as the gospel truth.

All of which makes the NoirCon Blog such an illuminating resource. Culling together pieces from NoirCons past and other magazines, websites, and blogs, Boxer is helping to elucidate the mysterious intersection of Goodis’ life and work.

Most recently, Boxer has posted a memoir by Larry Withers, “The Mysterious Elaine,” which focuses on his mother, whom after her death he discovered had been married to Goodis . Other highlights include “Between the Rivers: David Goodis’ Literary Life Out in the Cold” by Anthony Neil Smith, “Statement on David Goodis,” by Jay A. Gertzman, and of course Ken Bruen’s inimitable, strange poetry on NoirCon itself ("Noir Dark as It's Painted" and "The Mighty Lou").

Check back often to NoirCon often, as Lou Boxer seems to update it pretty regularly. And also, hope to see y’all at NoirCon 2010 (I’m keeping my fingers crossed that I’ll be able to make it there).

Monday, August 17, 2009

Fredric Brown's Writing Habits

In her introduction to Fredric Brown’s Paradox Lost (Random House, 1973), Elizabeth Brown recalls her husband’s writing habits. Reading about writers’ habits can somehow humanize them, but while it demystifies the physical process, the creative one remains as elusive and unexplainable as ever. As a musician, I rather liked reading about Fredric Brown and his flute, as I always have a guitar and bass within arm’s reach of the computer. Strumming a few chords or playing bass often helps me get around any writing roadblocks.

So, here’s how Fredric Brown went about writing:

“Fred hated to write but loved having written.

“He would do everything he could think of to delay sitting at his typewriter; he would dust his desk, tootle on his flute, read a little, tootle some more. Or if we were living in a town where mail was not delivered, he would call for it at the post office, and then find someone to have a game, or two or three, of chess or pinochle or cribbage. By the time he got home he thought it was too late to get started. After this went on for days and his conscience began to hurt, he would actually sit at his typewriter. He might write a line or two, or he might write a few pages. But the books got written.

“He was not a prolific writer. His average day’s output was about three pages. Sometimes, if a book seemed to be writing itself, he would write six or seven pages a day, but this was unusual…”

Photo courtesy of Secret Dead Blog, which also has another great quote by Fredric Brown on writing. Be sure to check it out.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Stories for Sunday: "Survival Instincts" by Sandra Seamans (Pulp Pusher)

First lines tell us a lot about the story, and the opening to Sandra Seamans' "Survival Instincts" (Pulp Pusher) warns us to pay attention to details, particularly the small, seemingly imperceptible ones.

"Penny pulled the worn quilt tight around her body in a futile attempt to stay warm. It wasn't the cold drafts sneaking through the walls of the old motel that were making her shiver. It was them. Then men who killed her father."

The feel of the fabric. The constriction of the quilt. The temperature of the room. Before we even know who Penny is, or what she is hiding from, Seamans has already shared with us Penny's sensations through acutely physical details.

Atmosphere is usually referred to as the overall ambiance of a story, but in "Survival Instincts" Semans takes this idea of "atmosphere" to a higher level altogether. As 12-year-old Penny hides in a hidden cupboard in the wall, listening to a gang of murderers wreck havoc through her father's motel, waiting and dreading the all-too-real possibility that she will be their next victim, it is the physical immediacy of her space that makes her fear all the more frightening. Like an architect, Seamans lays out for us the specificities of the surroundings: we hear the echoes from Mr. and Mrs. Kipps room as they meet their end and feel the thump on the wall as the gang begins searching for the hidden cupboard. The tension is all in the details – the rendering of Penny's intimate, dreadful sensations onto the page – which culminate in a chilling moment of realization for Penny, when everything her father taught her becomes essential for her survival. To say more would be to spoil such a terrific story – so here's a brief quote to give you a taste of what you have to look forward to.

"Stay quiet like a mouse, the least little move and they'll hear you. If they hear you, know that they'll find you and you'll have to fight your way out to stay alive. Remember that the most deadly creature on earth is a cornered rattlesnake. Think like a rattler, strike when they least expect it, and you might survive..."

Read Sandra Seamans' "Survival Instincts" here at Pulp Pusher.

Also, be sure to check out her blog, My Little Corner, which is full of information on short story publishing.

Image of Lillian Gish from The Wind (1928), directed by Victor Sjostrom.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

The PWA Shamus Awards Ticket Information

For all of you interested in attending this year's Shamus Awards, I just received this email from Robert Randisi with information about how to obtain tickets.

The PWA Shamus Award Banquet will be held Friday, Oct. 16, from 6:30-9:00 at The Slippery Noodle, the most popular blues bar in Indianapolis. Good food, great music, and the Shamus Awards. Tickets are $50 and are available now. Reserve your place asap as seating is limited. Email Bob Randisi at with your home address and an invitation will be sent to you.

Stay tuned to the PWA News and Views blog for more updates on the upcoming ceremony.

Friday, August 14, 2009

"Difficult Lives" by James Sallis (Gryphon Books, 1993/2000)

With its mind in the gutter and feet firmly rooted even farther below that, deep down in the dark recesses of the human experience and the dusty corners of bookstores, James Sallis’ Difficult Lives: Jim Thompson, David Goodis, Chester Himes (Gryphon Books, 1993/2000) stands right alongside Geoffrey O’Brien’s Hardboiled America as an essential text on crime fiction in the early days of the paperback original. While it does devote three chapters to those individual authors, Sallis’ introduction and first chapter, “Portable Worlds: The Original Paperback Novel,” succinctly and evocatively capture the pulp zeitgeist: “Tawdry–with just a hint of transcendence.”

The crux of the Sallis’ book is that the ephemeral nature of the paperback original – cheap, disposable, degenerate – both allowed for this trio to publish such experimental novels, at once intensely personal yet (sometimes unintentionally) reflective of the world around them, and subsequently for their work to be forgotten. “Once read,” Sallis writes, “like beer cans they were tossed away.” But being on the margin of the publishing industry allowed them certain liberties that major publishers would never have: Thompson’s experimental narratives and soociopathic protagonists; Goodis’ bleak worldview that veers away from plot and into irreconcilable broods; Himes’ hyper-kinetic, confrontational absurdities that reflected America’s racial prejudices and tensions. These weren’t safe, easy, or pleasant topics, yet they were crucial and relevant in ways that even the writers’ might not have suspected at the time. Roughly half a century later, their books say a hell of a lot more about what it meant to be alive at that point in time than any history book: to be scared, outraged, uncertain, submissive, and rebellious.

Thompson, Goodis, and Himes, each in their own way, chronicle peoples like themselves: fringe characters treading the line of social respectability and doing a bad job at it. Some try harder; some give up; others lash out. All are punished. These aren’t flattering portraits of America, but nor are they flattering characters, either. They were repackaging the worst parts of ourselves and selling it back to us for two bits: uncontrollable impulses, alcoholic depression, riotous race relations. I’d really love to know what some traveling salesman thought as he flipped through A Hell of a Woman, The Burglar, or The Real Cool Killers while sitting at a drugstore counter.

Clocking in at a brief 100 pages, it’s a quick and revealing read, and like the authors he writes about, Sallis can pack a big punch in a short sentence. (Though I do wish his chapter on Goodis were longer; he does a marvelous job detailing Goodis’ first few novels and early life, but cuts the story short around the time of Cassidy’s Girl without really touching on later works such as The Burglar and Somebody’s Done For, which I would argue are among his most fully realized and least compromising works.) References to such diverse authors as D.H. Lawrence (“Men murdered themselves into this democracy,”) and Anton Artaud (“Very little is needed to destroy a man, he needs only the conviction that his work is useless,”) elucidate some of the nuances to these writers work, but also make the case for their cultural and literary value. Sallis doesn’t seem to want to wrest them from the pulps to put on any high shelf; in fact, if anything, he sees the original context of their works as indispensable to understanding their importance. More than anything, I think that Sallis wants their work to be read and to stay in print. Difficult Lives was originally published in 1993, and sixteen years later, most of their work is still available and growing in popularity. Let’s hope it continues to do so.

Some favorite passages from Difficult Lives:

“What we have here, then, are failures to communicate. Three writers who like Icarus almost flew, but fell into a sea of original paperback novels. Three highly individual voices almost lost in the babble and hubbub of the marketplace. Three men who tried in their work to subvert again an already subversive genre and simultaneously to retrieve their lives, make some sense of them, through tricks of metaphor.”

On Thompson:

“One thinks of those cartoon beasts who, going about their destined business, pause to look down and only then discover that the ground beneath their feet – for how long? – no longer exists. But in Thompson’s work there is no restoration: in the following frame the coyote remains scorched and smoldering, stripped of hide and hair, foreshortened, legless, transformed.”

On Goodis:

“In fact, the craftsmanship he mastered in all those years of turning out fiction for the pulps was sometimes all that salvaged his books from a morass of aberrant psychology and obsession.”

On Himes:

“[He] has held a mirror to this country, hoping the monster would see itself and feel shame, know what it was. But the monster breaks all mirrors that show true, and its madness finally drives the man from it. He stands far way, on a cliff perhaps, looking down as the monster breaks its baubles one by one, stuffs itself, fouls its nest, steps in its anger and hatred. Until one day the monster has nothing left, nothing, and desperately it turns its eyes to that cliff. But the man is gone.”

[Read more of this week's Friday's Forgotten Books over at Patti Abbott's blog.]

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

John D. MacDonald on Words and Writing

Ever wondered what a day-in-the-life of John D. MacDonald was like? Well, in Herbert Brean’s The Mystery Writer’s Handbook, Mr. MacDonald shed some light on his writing process. Here’s what he had to say:

“I write everyday except Sunday. Never less than four hours, never more than eight. I get going at 9:30, 10 or 10:30; take a short lunch break; work after lunch until I can sense things going stale. Then I quit, because I have learned that once I feel that way, I am just doing stuff I will be forced to destroy.”

-John D. MacDonald, “Why I Write,” from The Mystery Writer’s Handbook, ed. Herbert Brean (Harper and Brothers, 1956), page 149.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

“The Flaw in the System” by Jim Thompson (Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, July 1956)

Con artists are nothing unusual in the world of Jim Thompson, but what is atypical about his short story “The Flaw in the System” (Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, July 1956) is that, instead of putting us in the shoes of the criminal, Thompson takes the point-of-view of the victims. Moreover, the victims – our narrator and his boss at the credit lending office – not only recognize they are being conned right from the get-go and allow it to happen, they also sympathize with the grifter. They also envy his nonconformity and freedom, a desire that characterizes many of Thompson’s protagonists, and in many cases causes their downfall.

When a nameless, faceless drifter wanders in and asks for credit with no job or collateral, the creditors know that he’s going to just run out on them and never repay the loan. Yet, for some reason, they are compelled to go against company policy and approve his application. It is this impulse, rather than the con, that preoccupies Thompson. For him, it is a heroic act – a mistake necessary to prove one’s humanity and individuality, and ultimately one’s own agency over their own thoughts and actions. In Thompson’s novels like The Killer Inside Me (or any number of his other books), these impulses become much darker, leading not towards the subversion of an inhuman organization but murder. Though even in this story one can feel Thompson’s trepidation towards the characters and their actions because even they recognize the dual implication of what they did. On one level it may prove they were human, but it also proved they weren’t in control of themselves. And that is something to worry about.

“Well,” I hesitated. “It was like I had to do it to prove something. That I was a person – a human being, not just part of a system. That there wasn’t any system big enough to keep me from doing the right thing. So – well, I guess that’s why I did it. Because it was the only way, it seemed, that this guy would go on liking me. And I was afraid that if he ever stopped liking me, I – I just wouldn’t be any more. I’d have moved off into a world I could never come back from.”

Cover art by George Salter.

“The Flaw in the System” was also reprinted in
Fireworks: The Lost Writings of Jim Thompson (Donald I. Fine, Inc., 1988), edited by Robert Polito and Michael McCauley.

Monday, August 10, 2009

"To Find Cora; Like Mink Like Murder; Body and Passion" by Harry Whittington (Stark House Press, 2009)

Harry Whittington writes of characters whose intense loneliness is equaled only by their unshakable paranoia. Their fantasies and nightmares are intertwined so as to be inseparable from each other – and they always come to fruition. Sometimes things work out; often they don’t. Either way, the end result is of little consequence compared to the relentless psychological anguish and physical suffering they endure along the way. And it is these pains that Whittington so acutely transmits to the reader. The unstable psyche of his protagonists infects us: panting and desperate, and unable to see things clearly, just the warped perceptions and pipe dreams of those who have lost the only thing they had to live for, and for whom finding it means death. For these characters, even in winning, there's only losing.

“Prolific” hardly seems a sufficient description of Whittington, often referred to as “The King of the Paperbacks.” Numbers vary depending on source, but he penned at least 170 novels in his career which began in the mid 1940s, hit its stride and peaked in the 1950s, slumped in the 1960s, effectively died in the 1970s, then was revived in the 1980s. It’s a career that anyone would be proud to have lived, though it’s hard to say if anyone would have volunteered for it if they knew of all the ups and downs and still more downs that they would have to weather. And weather them Whittington did – and with the help of Stark House Press and David Laurence Wilson, Whittington’s legacy will hopefully only continue to grow in the years to come.

To Find Cora, Like Mink Like Murder, and Body and Passion have just been collected in a single volume by Stark House (available to purchase HERE), along with an essay by Wilson called “Harry and His Bastard Children,” detailing his quest to track down 39 “lost books,” including an elusive novel published only in France (translated, of course) and in a severely altered form under a pseudonym in America. That book turned out to be Like Mink Like Murder, and until now it had never seen the light of day in its original form as Whittington intended. The other two in the collection were also long unavailable and out-of-print, making their reappearance both long awaited and worthy of celebration.

Wilson’s essay goes beyond a mere background check – his is an archeology of a legacy, and in coming to terms with the personal, artistic, political, economic, and particularly editorial forces that all collided during Whittington’s career, Wilson effectively writes one of the most thorough, evocative descriptions of what it meant to a writer in the early days of the Paperback Original. From dealing with publishers to dealing with the FBI; the pressures of rising sales to the pressures of declining sales; the pride of seeing multiple books all declaring your name to seeing your work appear nameless, or to not even know what name it was published under; and from being an overlooked, forgotten writer to one who is remembered and celebrated once again. I’d rather not spoil the riches of Wilson’s deep insight and meticulous research by trying to synopsize his essay, so I’ll leave it at this: the twenty-page introduction is worth the price of the book alone.

Though lesser known, the three Whittington novels selected can hold their own against any of the better-known Whittington titles. They all share in the same paranoid psychosis, which by page one is already running at 100% and only continues to rise throughout their swift, nerve-jittering 100-ish pages. On the very first page of To Find Cora (1963, originally Cora is a Nympho!), Joe Byars is already an emotional and mental wreck, distraught without his wife Cora, and crisscrossing the country looking for her. All it takes is one paragraph of Like Mink Like Murder (1957, T’as des Visions! 1965, Passion Hangover, under the pseudonym J.X. Williams) for Sammy Baynard’s past to come back to haunt him. And Body and Passion (1952, under the pseudonym Whit Harrison) is no different: on page one Jeff Taylor is already hunted and hiding, and about to make a last-ditch effort to save his hide that will wind up burning down the only hideaway he has ever known.

When at his best, Whittington was an innovator, often turning archetypical characters and plots on their head, and finding wild and new ways to tell stories from unusual angles. The first half of To Find Cora occurs almost in real-time. Highly cinematic, each successive paragraph comes like the next in an unalterable domino-like effect. After being tipped off by the police, Byars heads to a small farm in search of his wife and winds up the prisoner of man whose possessive angst and delusions he understands all too well. The man thinks Byars has come to steal his wife and will do anything to keep her – and to make sure that Byars will never leave. Whittington writes in the first-person frenzy of man to whom reason is always secondary to impulse. Byars’ warped worldview overtakes the narrative, and we are compelled to follow his feverish trail to the bitter, uncompromising end.

Like Mink Like Murder starts with a paragraph that could rightly preface any of Whittington’s novels: “When I got back to the office from my delivery, I was sweated down, and only partly because it was another hot morning and I had run, trying to stay ahead of my thoughts. It was a losing battle…” Whittington’s characters are doomed by the very nature of their preoccupations: they worry too much. Worrying about worrying, about what has happened, what will happen, they are too busy worrying to even consider what is happening in front of them. Sam Baynard is a reformed ex-con with a steady job as a milkman and, for once, a nice girl who he dreams of marrying. Then Elva comes back into his life (even her name is 3/4s “evil”), and with her come his old partners-in-crime who want him back for one last job, or else they’ll put him right back behind bars for jewelry heist he’s still wanted for. Whittington’s protagonists are never wholly good or bad, and Baynard is a perfect example of these conflicting inner-tensions. His identity is constantly in flux: the world won’t let him be good, and he won’t let himself be bad. And the truth is, there’s a little bit of both within him, and never will ever be entirely absent, no matter how much he tries to eradicate either part of his identity.

The most experimental of the three is Body and Passion, which begins with suspected murderer Jeff Taylor kidnapping Ben Young, the crooked lawyer who has framed him in order to help further his campaign for governor. But when the cabin catches fire during a struggle, only one man makes it out alive – though no one knows who he is. Both men were burned beyond recognition, and the survivor is suffering from extreme amnesia and has no memories. Referred to throughout only as “X,” the survivor is caught between both identities: Taylor’s gang wants their boss back, and the Young family wants their son back. Neither milieu is as loving as they pretend, nor are Taylor and Young as different as they once seemed. The use of “X” is also a clever way to make the reader identify with the protagonist. A line like, “X was thinking, there’s still trouble, still confusion and I’m still in the middle of it,” is basically an invitation to insert your own name and your own life.

The lack of a distinct boundary between hero and villain – or cop and robber, or whatever variation you prefer – has always been a preoccupation in crime fiction. “The two men in that cabin were very similar,” reminds the doctor, “in build and in many bodily characteristics. The differences have been – if you will see it that way – dissolved by the fire.” In Mickey Spillane’s One Lonely Night, Mike Hammer is lambasted by a judge for acting like the punks he kills than the knight he calls himself, and in Touch of Evil Orson Welles’ Hank Quinlan orchestrates crimes in order to frame those he is certain are guilty of something. Other similar examples proliferate the genre, but few are as focused on this blurred identity as Whittington is in Body and Passion, who probes the matter so deeply that X’s identity remains a mystery until the final pages of the book.

Fans of Whittington need no urging to pick this one up. Those that haven’t read him would do well to start with this collection, as it serves as a great introduction to one of the most distinct voices of classic crime fiction.

And now for a couple of quotes from each of the three books:

To Find Cora

“I turned slowly toward the sound of his voice. It was like something crazy, like something that had no relation to reality, but it was real all right.”

“He shivered all over. He saw now he was wrong. This didn’t make it better. It made it worse. Where he was – with whatever it was driving him – he couldn’t afford to be wrong, he had to be right every time. It was more than compulsion, it was the frantic hope of existence with him.”

Like Mink Like Murder

“I pressed her down into the mattress, kissing her mouth, getting the same rough kiss in return. We didn’t have love, but we had hatred, and it was almost as good.”

“As hard as I hoped and sweated, nothing was going to wake me from this nightmare. This wasn’t the kind you could escape by falling off your bed.”

“Nice girls seldom get mink.”

Body and Passion

“How much can a man stand? How much hounding? How much lying and oppression? A man can’t take what I been through and go on being sane. It just don’t add up that way. And, Mister, I’m gettin’ crazier by the minute.”

“Living like this was existing in a vacuum. Nobody, belonging nowhere. It was illness that was a bottomless void and he had the feverish sensation of drifting through it, without anchor or security or hope.”


(Stark House cover designed by Mark Shepard; Body and Passion cover courtesy of Pulp of the Day; Cora is a Nympho! cover courtesy of macavityabc)

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Stories for Sunday: Mega Catch-Up Edition

Work and other projects have side-tracked me from Pulp Serenade the past couple of weeks. In fact, it wasn't until a couple of days ago that I actually managed to find time to do any reading for myself. But -- last night on the job was kind of quiet, so I got some time to finish the book I was reading, so I promise a new review ASAP, and some other goodies coming up. And since I missed last week's Stories for Sunday, here's a Mega Catch-Up Edition will all the good stuff that's been going on during my absence.

First up is Nik Morton's "I Celebrate Myself" over at Beat to a Pulp. A couple months back I featured Morton's story "Spend Now, Pay Later" (which if you haven't already read, then take a break, read it, then come back). What both stories share is a keen awareness of social and economic plights that are empathetic rather than didactic, as well as a brooding anxiety over the fate of the next generation. In Morton's latest story, a police officer is called to dig through a trash compactor in the projects after someone claims to have heard a baby crying inside. Vividly caressed details make the characters and situation all the more real and relatable.
"The stench was overwhelming, a mixture of mildewed fast-food, feces, rotten fruit, used sanitary towels, crumpled tabloid sheets of the New York Daily News and God knows what. I gagged and fought back the bile that threatened to lead a revolt of my stomach as I crawled over trash in the shadows. If my husband could see me now, he'd have a fit."

Read Nik Morton's "I Celebrate Myself" here at Beat to a Pulp.

Speaking of Beat to a Pulp, Patti Abbott had a story there last week, "Esther Meaney," and it's really terrific (and we'd expect nothing less from her). In just the first paragraph of the story, a perceptive sentence like this reveals a world of pained memories outside of the story: "If other women took a baseball bat out of the basement when their husbands were away, Mom put hers down after Dad left." Reticent details like these are one of Abbott's specialities, and say more than a page full of labored lists ever could. Her latest story is about a twelve year old boy who gets a new babysitter, Esther Meaney, who surprises him by guzzling bourbon, chain-smoking cigarettes, reading comics – oh, and she robs convenient stores as well.
"Sometimes," she began, "a girl's got to do things she'd rather not." She looked at me closely. "Just to survive, that is."
Read Patti Abbott's "Esther Meaney" here at Beat to a Pulp.

You've heard me rave about Keith Rawson's stories before, and as long as he keeps pumping out stories I'll continue to push there here at Pulp Serenade. He has a new one over at A Twist of Noir called "What I Lost Along With My Keys" about a real estate salesman and his recently out-of-work wife and their growing estrangement. It's as bleak as it is hilarious, and everything comes to screeching, devastating, face-slapping halt in the last three paragraphs. I won't ruin Rawson's carefully orchestrated effect by telling you anymore, but I do want to quote one of the many pants-pissing funny moments in the story:
"I thought about buying her puppy, but I figured she’d end up drowning it in the bathtub in a fit of rage the minute the little furball took a dump on the carpet and would beat me unconscious with the corpse the second I walked through the front door; so I scratched the idea entirely and let her stew in her own juices."
Read Keith Rawson's "What I Lost Along With My Keys" at A Twist of Noir.

Another Pulp Serenade regular, Paul D. Brazill, has served up another of his specialties over at Blink Ink. This one's called "Bang!" – true to its title, it's a quick shot of Brazill's characteristic wordplay. Sometimes all you need is just 37 well-picked words.

Read Paul D. Brazill's "Bang!" here at Blink Ink.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Friday's Forgotten Books: "Allan Dwan: The Last Pioneer" by Peter Bogdanovich (Praeger, 1971)

Those looking for a first-hand account of the early days of moving pictures can do no better than Peter Bogdanovich's Allan Dwan: The Last Pioneer (Praeger, 1971), an invaluable book-length interview with one of the true founding fathers of cinema. "There will never again be a movie career like Allan Dwan's," Bogdanovich begins his introduction. "Over fity years, he directed at least 400 pictures, and produced, wrote or supervised as many more." He entered the industry in 1909, directed his first movie in 1911, and made his last in 1961. It is no exaggeration to say that Dwan's history is cinema's history. He didn't just work in every genre and format – silents and talkies, black and white and color, shorts and features – he was at the forefront when they were still in their infancy. Regrettably, much of Dwan's work is lost – particularly his silent films, which is supposedly when he had the most artistic control over his own work. However, if The Iron Mask (1929) is any indication, than we are missing out on one of the foundational filmmakers.

What makes The Last Pioneer such a valuable and at the same time entertaining read is that it is about so much more than just the individual movies – it is about the evolution of the craft and industry. Dwan comically relates about his early days as a director, wearing a gunbelt on his hip – and having to use it a few times to defend himself against rival companies! Perhaps it is apocryphal, but it's how I like to think of those early filmmakers: in the desert, a camera by their side, a gun in their hands. An outlaw artist, working in a medium that was not yet respected, but that they saw promise in.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Women of the West Updates!

"Women of the West" has been in full swing of at Not Coming to a Theater Near You, which has kept me away from crime fiction as of late. However, there will certainly be more noir to come shortly. Here's a recap of recent "Women of the West" updates:

Destry Rides Again (1939) reviewed by Evan Kindley

Arizona (1940) reviewed by me

My Little Chickadee (1940) reviewed by Evan Kindley

Colorado Territory (1949) reviewed by Jenny Jediny

Westward the Women (1951) reviewed by me