Tuesday, September 28, 2010

"Stranglehold" by Ed Gorman (Minotaur, 2010)

Dev Conrad is that rarity among literary characters, a warm narrator whose inimitable voice quickly becomes as familiar as an old friend. And if you’ve read Ed Gorman’s first novel about Dev, Sleeping Dogs, then the reunion in Stranglehold is all the more joyous.

As the Stranglehold opens, political consultant Dev Conrad has been called away from his home base to intervene in the campaign of one of his company’s clients, Congresswoman Susan Cooper. She’s been acting out of character, disappearing mysteriously, but she refuses to tell anyone what is going. With her reelection on the line, it is up to Dev to get to the bottom of things.

Cooper’s campaign and personal life quickly begins to fall apart. First Dev follows Susan to a crummy motel room and discovers blood around the room, as well as the business card of a ruthless political consultant. Next, he finds himself being questioned for the murder of someone that might have been involved with Cooper’s rivals. And Natalie Cooper, Susan’s tyrannical mother, is very unimpressed with the skeletons that Dev is dragging out of the family closet.

Gorman is a humanist in the tradition of Margaret Millar. Both draw readers in with their strong, tightly-plotted mysteries. However, the real treasure of their books is in their ensemble of characters (even the minor characters are treated with the utmost respect and craft), and in the maturity and acuity of the writers’ voices. Dev’s patience and hardboiled insight embodies so much of what we’ve come to admire in Gorman’s own writing.

Dev wants to see the best in people, but he is wise and weary enough to see the worst, and to recognize that people are human and they make mistakes. But what makes him trustworthy is that he is even quicker to spot his own weaknesses and errors. This blend of idealism and realism is what makes Dev such an endearing persona – he is never looking down at those around him, and never looking but, but always looking them right in the eye. And when another character returns that look – now those are special moments. Many of them involve Gwen – naïve, well-meaning, and brave, and who was unwittingly drawn into the Cooper campaign chaos; and others involve Ben, Dev’s colleague, another fallen idealist with plenty of regrets about failing his own family, with whom Dev shares an unspoken bond.

Gorman doesn’t just write stories, he puts them in worlds in which many stories are colliding. The book you’re holding just happens to contain a couple. Here is an example: Dev spots a mother in a Toby Keith t-shirt, her husband in a NASCAR shirt, and a chubby child. Their clothes are ratty, and their car is in worse shape. There’s almost a hint of caricature in Dev’s observation – until he notices the husband’s limp, and the wife’s attempt to help him. “It was the sort of thing that could break your goddamned heart because it was so simple and loving and said so much about their years together. They were playing a shitty hand, one the dark Lovecraftina gods were probably still laughing about, but they were bound up and redeemed by their loyalty.”

In these politically divisive times, we need a hero like Dev Conrad. Someone who’s concern goes beyond party lines, and who can see beyond all the campaign and media hoopla. Heck, I’d vote for Dev, but I think he’s too smart to run. In the meantime, I eagerly await the next installment in Ed Gorman’s latest series.

As always, here are a few of my favorite quotes from the book. Gorman has some really wonderful turns of phrases, and shows a real love of language.

“Fog rolled down the streets on my way to foundation headquarters. Streetlights were dulled by ghosts and stoplights burned like evil eyes through the mist. A long stretch of fast-food places shone like a cheap carnival midway in the rolling clouds. And always there was the relentless cold rain, gutters and intersections filling up fast.”

“After my years in army intelligence, when I’d functioned pretty much as a detective, I’d thought about joining a police force somewhere. I’d spent three nights in a squad car riding around Chicago. The dangers I’d seen were tolerable; there’d been moments when they’d been exhilarating. But the heartbreak was what I couldn’t handle. The beaten wives and the forlorn children, the sad junkies, the prisons of poverty, the fear of people afraid to walk the streets of their own neighborhoods. I didn’t have the gut for it.”

“Then she started her awkward, belly-bumping slide out of the booth. I was thinking how good it would be when my own daughter was pregnant. I had so much to make up for. I wanted to do it right this time.”

“And no, it wasn’t the drinking; it was the fact that I spent so much time away from home working on campaigns. I wasn’t faithful and neither was she. She had a good excuse for it, I didn’t.”

Monday, September 27, 2010

Q.R. Markham on Spy Thrillers

Over at Mullholland Books, Q.R. Markham has a terrific essay entitled "The Cold War Hero." Markham's own spy thriller, An Enemy of War, will be released by Mullhollnd Books in Fall 2011, and I for one am eager to read it. In "The Cold War Hero," Markham perceptively charts the differences between the private detective and spy protagonists, and how they create different tones of suspense for the reader. "When the detective himself is threatened, his peril simply reinforces the general gravity. The secret agent, on the other hand, whether amateur or professional, becomes involved and therefore integrated into a world completely different from his own, and he will not be released until that world is made harmless, temporarily if not finally." Markahm's blog is also shaping up to be a great new home for spy thrillers, with insightful essays on the genre, and wonderful vintage covers of spy paperbacks of yesteryear. Operation Octopus, The Chic Chick Spy, The Dolly Dolly Spy? Yes, please!

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Stories for Sunday: Seamans, Brazill, Russell

Stories for Sunday is back!

First off, if you haven't checked out Sandra Seamans' latest story over at A Twist of Noir, that should be your first stop. The story is called "In God's Own Time," and it is one of her best, as well as one of her darkest. The first paragraph hits you fast and hard and sends your head spinning and your gut turning. Things only get more harrowing from there, as it follows a woman just released from jail as she hitches a ride to her old home and the tragic memories she left behind so many years ago. The final twist is as brutal as it is remarkable. Don't expect any happy endings from this one.

"You know, I was seventeen and pregnant the afternoon my daddy died. Somebody put a shotgun to his head and blew his brains all over the Lazy Boy. Hell of a mess that was. I was told they had to toss that old chair out in the trash cause there just wasn’t no cleaning the blood and brains out of the fabric. Pity, it was a nice chair. Daddy’s favorite."

Also at A Twist of Noir is Paul D. Brazill, another master of the short form. "The Final Cut" originally came out of one of Patti Abbott's Flash Fiction Challenges and later was included at Radgepacket Online. It is a darkly funny tale of revenge about a man who finally gets even with his ex-wife who left him and became a movie star. Even if you've read it before, Bazill's deft control of the short story is worth revisiting. Lines like this are priceless: "Beside me, a fading French film star with a sandblasted face slurped his espresso with all the enthusiasm of an ex-con in a bordello."

And finally, the weekly punch over at Beat To a Pulp is Katherine A. Russell's "Icarus of the Cliffs," an intriguing and original story about a hang-gliding death that goes in pleasantly unexpected directions. The variety of voices and stories at Beat To a Pulp is one of their greatest assets, and I enjoy the risks they take.

That's it for now, but expect more Stories For Sunday in the future.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

"Fogtown" by Andersen Gabrych and Brad Rader (Vertigo Crime, 2010)

Fogtown is Noir.

Noir to the core. Raw, bleak, brutal, and compelling as hell to read.

Frank Grissel is a self-loathing, slumming Private Eye named with enough personal baggage to drown himself in the gutter. His investigation into the disappearance of a young prostitute named Carmen leads him into the more unappealing aspects of San Francisco circa 1953. The local priest seems to be hiding something, and the sexy “sex psychologist” Dr. Grey has more invested in local prostitutes than just research. But to find the girl and solve the case, Grissel will have to plumb the worst parts of society and admit to a lot of things he’s been drowning in alcohol and running from his whole life.

Written by Andersen Gabrych with art by Brad Rader, Fogtown is marks another triumph for DC Comics’ Vertigo Crime series. It is also the grittiest of the bunch. Whereas some of the earlier books used elements of horror-fantasy (like Jason Starr and Mick Bertilorenzi’s The Chill), Gabrych and Rader are much more rooted in reality. Their style – from the snappy dialogue and hardboiled narration to the cinematic, chiaroscuro artwork – is deeply rooted in Noir tradition. Take a look at these quotes:

“In a flash, her Jade eyes tear me apart, hungrily look at each piece, and put me back together again.”

“You don’t care about that girl or her mother. No, you’re an over-the-hill drunk who only cares about killing the regret over every bad choice you’ve ever made.”

“I run out of instinct. And it hits me. I ain’t got nowhere to go. No one who’ll have me. I never done nothing right. My whole life. I’m just a pice of shit in this city full of shit. I wanna tear my skin off. Turn into somebody different. I gotta get outta this town.”

“I’m making a noose outta all the loose threads of this job. I’m a shit detective. They could’a got some Pinkerton dick to find Carmen. They didn’t want a dick. They wanted a patsy. I might be a lotta shameful things. But this dick ain’t nobody’s patsy.”

That last quote conjures up memories of Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade, and the cruel revelations at the end of The Maltese Falcon. Spade doesn’t play the patsy to anyone. Grissel would like to say the same, but unfortunately he can’t, because he did play the patsy. To a lot of people. Namely himself.

Grissel brings to mind an essay written by Dave White called "HEY... Slacker... Get a JOB!!!" for the Do Some Damage blog collective. I’m not sure if he had Fogtown in mind, but it fits in with the overall point of his essay: “It seems the traditional PI is fading and being replaced with another kind of PI. The slacker PI… Guys who really don't want to be PIs but need a way to pay the bills.” He draws a comparison with the traditional model of value-driven PI’s epitomized by Chandler’s Marlowe.

The idea of a disengaged Private Eye isn’t new – look at Jonathan Lattimer’s Karl Craven in Solomon’s Vineyard or even Bill Crane in The Dead Don’t Care – but White’s observation is astute and brings light to Grissel’s character. White says that, “I feel it adds to the suspense. Will the PI do what's right and solve the case? Or will things get so bad he'll just walk away.” As we are reminded throughout Fogtown, Grissel has run away many times before in the past. So, the question remains, will he run away again? Or will he own up to who he is and try to set things straight?

Facing the parts of ourselves we want to forget about. Learning to accept who we are. This, as much as any detective assignment, is the Noir’s protagonist’s challenge.

With literary shades of Woolrich and Spillane, as well as visual echoes of both Film Noir and early comics like The Spirit and Batman, Andersen Gabrych and Brad Rader have create a Noir aficionado’s delight with Fogtown.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Lou Boxer Interview on NoirCon 2010

NoirCon is only six weeks away! From November 4th-7th, Philadelphia will be drawing Noir aficionados from around the globe. Writers, fans, publishers, and scholars will gather to share their knowledge and passion for all things Noir. Pulp Serenade will be attending and reporting on the numerous panels and events, including the screening of Larry Withers' documentary, David Goodis: To a Pulp.

Registration is still open! To help celebrate the event, NoirCon's Lou Boxer was kind enough to answer a few questions for Pulp Serenade.

Pulp Serenade: How and when did NoirCon first begin?

Lou Boxer: NoirCon evolved from GoodisCon. Goodiscon took place in January 2007 which coincided with the 40th Anniversary of Goodis’s death (January 7th, 1940). The seminal conference dedicated to David Goodis and his fiercely, existential writings ushered the birth of NoirCon 2008 and NoirCon 2010. NoirCon is dedicated to the spirit of David Goodis and honoring those who carry on his style of writing – saluting the anti-hero and the everyman down on their luck.

PS: About many people do you expect to attend this year?

LB: The conference continues to grow from year to year. We expect on the order of 100 to 150 Noir fans this year from all over the country and the world.

PS: George Pelecanos is receiving the David L. Goodis Award. Could you describe the honor and say a few words about how he carries on the Goodis tradition?

LB: The David L. Goodis Award is given to that writer in recognition for his or her contribution to Noir Literature in the spirit of Philadelphia’s native son, David Loeb Goodis. Like the archetypal writing of David Goodis, Pelecanos pulls back the stained sheets of that part of society we are to quick to dismiss. He catalogues the torments, the struggles and the tribulations of the common man in a way that leaves you saying, “Hey, that guy is me or that guy could be me.” Pelecanos is the real deal.

PS: Charles Benoit is this year's Master of Ceremony and Joan Schenkar is this year’s Keynote Speaker. For those unfamiliar with their work, do you have any favorite books of theirs that you could recommend?

LB: Charles Benoit appeared on the scene in 2004 with Relative Danger (Poison Pen Press, nominated for an Edgar). Relative Danger is a fresh, brash adventure of an unemployed Doug Pearce from Pottsville, Pennsylvania. Given the job of solving the mysterious death of his uncle, Pearse takes on an incredibly rich and vibrant tour of Southeast Asia. In 2006, Benoit takes us to India in Out of Order. Murder, mystery and a damn good adventure is to be had. 2010 has taken Benoit into Young Adult market with his book entitled You (Harper Teen). You will not be disappointed by any of his books.

Benoit’s unusual charismatic and vivacious personality is infectious. Prepare to be engaged, challenged, and dazzled. You will not soon forget this one man show.

Joan Schenkar's The Talented Miss Highsmith: The Secret Life and Serious Art of Patricia Highsmith (St. Martins Press) (finalist for Edgar Allan Poe Award, the Agatha Award, and the Publishing Triangle Award, and winner of the 2010 Lambda Award) will take you into to the mystery world of one of darkest female writers of the post-modern age. Not to be missed. The Talented Miss Highsmith must be savored slowly for Schenkar tells a tale like no other.

PS: Johnny Temple is the Recipient of the Jay and Deen Kogan Award for Excellence in Publishing. Could you say a few words about the award and some of Johnny's accomplishments with Akashic Books?

LB: The Jay and Deen Kogan Award for Excellence in Publishing is named after two individuals that epitomize the word Excellence. Jay and Deen Kogan brought theater to Philadelphia more than 50 years ago and with that an uncompromised commitment to provide only the finest and best theater in Philadelphia for its many patrons.

Johnny Temple and Akashic Books, like the Kogans, strives to provide the exceptional in Noir Literature by publishing some of the finest quality books today. Akashic is Sanskrit for “Hidden Knowledge” and Temple is the master for making that knowledge available for all to see and to read. Akashic Books' Noir Series encompasses Noir tales form all over the United States and the World. We are proud to have Philadelphia Noir and some of its contributors will be on hand to launch the book at NoirCon 2010. 

PS: And now for a few questions about yourself. When did you first get interested in Noir?

LB: My interest in Noir began when I was in fifth grade. I was immediately drawn to a book entitled The Secret of the Crooked Cat (#13 in The Alfred Hitchcock and the Three Investigators series). Once bitten, I could not stop myself from reading the masters. Hammett, Chandler, Poe, Woolrich, Thompson and the list goes on. I have been reading ever since and collecting books for the last 38 years.

PS: What book (or books) most perfectly embody Noir for you?

LB: Not an easy answer. My answer will be a shopping list that is far from complete and ever growing. Bruen, Out of the Gutter, Swierczynski, Faust, Starr, Guthrie, Tafoya, Stone, Busted Flush Books, Vachss, Kleinfeld, Laymon, Crime Factory, Connelly, Lehane, Abbott, Crumley, Barre, Rozan, Phillips (Gary), anything Dennis McMillan publishes, Phillips (Scott), Richard Sand, Hendricks, Jeff Cohen, Nisbet, Harrington, Hard Case Crime, Bourdain, Kent Anderson, Vonnegut, all of Goodis.

PS: David Goodis is central to NoirCon -- what is it about his work that makes it so everlasting?

LB: It is the purest, most unadulterated writing. It cuts right to the bone like a jagged knife. Goodis wrote for the sake of writing. He had a story to tell and he told it. He lived his life the way he wanted and answered to no one. Things were not always easy for him. His stories were extensions of his personal life. Goodis tells the day-to-day struggle of the guy down on his luck, trying to make it through one more day of hell, knowing the next day will be no better than the one before.

“After a while it gets so bad that you want to stop the whole business. You figure that there’s no use in trying to fight back. Things are set dead against you and the sooner you give up the better. It’s like a mile run. You’re back there in seventh place and there isn’t a chance in the world. The feet are burning, the lungs are bursting, and all you want to do is fall down and take a rest.” (Retreat from Oblivion by David Goodis at the tender age of 22!)

PS: What books are you reading right now?

LB: Windward Passage by Jim Nisbet; Boxer Beetle by Ned Beauman; You by Charles Benoit; Beatrice and Virgil by Yann Martel; Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese; Mountains Beyond Mountains by Tracy Kidder.

PS: Lastly, if someone hasn't made up their mind about attending NoirCon yet, any final words to help change their mind?

LB: Mid-term elections are shaping up to be a time of great confusion, darkness and unhappiness. Whether you are a member of the Tea Party or a free wheeling liberal democrat, NoirCon will be one conference that will be 100% bipartisan. Everyone is a winner at NoirCon 2010 no matter how the hanging chads are counted.

NoirCon is a symposium and it can be defined as:
1. A conference or meeting to discuss a particular subject (NOIR)
2. A collection of essays or papers on a particular subject by a number of contributors (NOIRCON Program)
3. A drinking party or convivial discussion, especially as held at the Society Hill Playhouse in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania over a weekend in November 2010, where all participants have the privilege to participate.
4. A chance to revel and reflect upon the memory of David Thompson, Noir Aficionado extraordinaire, the heart and soul of Murder By The Book, taken from this band of wayward souls way to soon. He was loved and he will not be forgotten.

“…years down the pike, the boast will be: ‘NoirCon 2010, I was there,” - Ken Bruen
The question is will you? Register today at www.NoirCon.info

James Reasoner Interview up at You Would Say That, Wouldn't You

Paul D. Brazill published an excerpt of an English-language translation of an interview with James Reasoner over at his blog, You Would Say That, Wouldn't You. The interview was originally published in Italian by Liberi di scrivere. In the interview, James talks about one of my favorite books, his first novel Texas Wind, which I reviewed here.

The full interview is available here to read in English.

Here is a sample of the interview:

Q: Could you tell us a little about your protagonist, Cody?
A: Cody (and I’m pretty sure that’s his last name, but to this day I don’t know his first name) is a smart, decent guy, and tough enough when he has to be. He was born and raised in Texas and loves the place, but he doesn’t necessarily like everything it’s come to be. He has a broad range of interests.

One of my favourite lines from the novel is when Janice looks at the books in Cody’s apartment and says, “That’s the first time I’ve seen Herman Hesse and Zane Grey on the same shelf.”

One thing I don’t recall if I’ve ever mentioned about him is that I came up with the name not because of Buffalo Bill Cody but rather Phil Cody, who was an early editor at BLACK MASK before Joseph T. Shaw became editor."

Monday, September 20, 2010

NoirCon 2010 -- Will you be there?

I just sent in my registration for NoirCon this year. It will be my first year, and I'm very excited. Anyone else going?

NOIRCON 2010 is almost 6 weeks away and registration is still open. Do not miss out on this opportunity to meet some of the best and the brightest writers out there today at NoirCon 2010. Do not miss out on history being made again!

Philadelphia will again host some of the most talented writers of the noir genre at NoirCon 2010.

Come meet these celebrated authors over November 4th, 5th, 6th and 7th at the Society Hill Playhouse at 507 South 8th Street. A partial list of the panelists includes:

George Pelecanos
Daniel Woodrell
Vicki Hendricks
William Heffernan
Laura Lippman
Joan Schenkar
Reed Farrel Coleman
Daniel Hoffman
Megan Abbott
Duane Swierczynski
William Lashner
Howard Rodman
S.J. Rozan
Robert Polito

NoirCon 2010 is a forum where all those who appreciate noir can come together to debate, plot, boast, or simply party with like minded individuals. It is a four day journey held in Philadelphia, the birthplace of David Goodis, one of the unsung greats of Noir literature. It offers everyone involved an opportunity to have a helluva good time looking into the bottomless, downward void that is Noir.

Each year NoirCon raises money for those in need. Our charity of choice this year is the AIDS FUND. We will having a Noir-Gay Bingo on Saturday, November 6th at 6 PM at the Doubletree Hotel in Philadelphia. What is Noir-Gay Bingo you ask? Check it out at http://aidsfundphilly.org/gaybingo/ or http://www.facebook.com/gaybingophilly?ref=ts

Questions? Thoughts? Please do not hesitate to contact us at noircon@gmail.com. Follow the evolution of NoirCon 2010 at www.noircon.info or on Facebook at NoirCon. Register on line at http://www.noircon.com/regform.pdf

Lou Boxer and Deen Kogan

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Two Stories by David Cranmer

David Cranmer, co-editor of Beat to Pulp, has two recent stories on the web (as well as one in print in the latest issue of Needle). Over at The Western Online is the latest in the on-going adventures of Marshall Cash Laramie, "Kid Eddie," published under the pseudonym Edward A. Grainger. In this tale, Cash is on a mission to escort wanted criminal Edward Morash, aka Kid Eddie, from Vermillion back to Cheyenne. The problem? Kid Eddie appears harmless as a fly, so sweet that even the Vermillion jailer has got the creeps. Cash has been warned that Kid Eddie is fast, but anything can happen on the trail, and the resourceful Cash is prepared for anything.

On top of a great ambush scene, "Kid Eddie" boasts strong conversations, especially between Cash and Eddie. From the contrast of their conversations and Eddie's physical behavior (particularly in the fight sequences) emerges a vivid, nuanced portrait of a complex villain, one whose depth belies the brevity of the story. And then there is Cash, the world weary Marshall who sees the world beyond the black-and-white moral dichotomy of those around him. I anxiously await a longer, novel-length Cash Laramie.

Meanwhile, Cranmer's "The Great Whydini" was the story of the month in August over at All Due Respect, a new online magazine. Tonally, Cranmer takes a different direction -- it is a darkly comic story that takes place behind-the-scenes as a magician practices a daring underwater escape routine while he is chained to cement blocks. The ending packs a devilish punch that it would be criminal to spoil. But just like "Kid Eddie," David's writing is concise and controlled, with potent kicks smartly paced throughout.

Check out his stories, then head over to Beat to a Pulp for this week's jab, "The Wanted Man" by Matthew Pizzolato.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

In Memory of David Thompson

This post is in memory of David Thompson, of Busted Flush Press and Murder by the Book bookstore, who passed away suddenly earlier this week. Lou Boxer just announced a tribute to David at this year's Noircon in Philadelphia (Nov 4-7) and I wanted to share that information, which is posted below.

But first I also wanted to say a few brief words about David, who meant a great deal to the mystery community. He was very thoughtful and encouraging, and generous with not only his vast array of knowledge, but more importantly his passion for literature. He turned me on to so many great writers -- Tom Piccirilli, Vicki Hendricks, Reed Farrel Coleman, Daniel Woodrell, James Sallis, Dave Zeltserman, and many others that I still have yet to get to (like Ted Lewis). It was always a joy to receive an email, or even a Yahoo chat message, from him -- especially those chat messages when I had to work long night shifts at the video store. In this information age when technology can do so much to alienate us from one another, David seemed to be able to bring a community closer together. He was a great publisher, and a great friend.

You'll be missed, David.


Here is the information on the Noircon Tribute:

David Thompson : A Celebration of Life
Please join McKenna Jordan and the Murder by the Book family for a celebration of the life of David Thompson, who passed away suddenly and unexpectedly on Monday, September 13, 2010. David loved a good party, and we will honor him by celebrating the life of an extraordinary young man who touched the lives of many in his 21 years at the bookstore.

Place: The Briar Club, 2603 Timmons Lane, Houston, 77027

Date & Time: Sunday, September 26, 2010, 2 to 5 p.m.

There will be margaritas and Mexican Hors d'œuvres – great favorites of David’s -- along with other drinks. No RSVPs are necessary.

Many have asked about tributes to David’s memory. Alafair Burke has set up a fund for those who would like to make a donation in David’s name. The charity will be determined later. For those wishing to contribute, here are the details:

Checks to the order of "In Memory of David Thompson" (NOT simply David Thompson)

Mail for deposit to:
7 E. 14th St. #1206
New York, NY 10003

For those who would like to make a direct payment please contact alafair@alafairburke.com for account information.
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