Thursday, March 31, 2011

Heath Lowrance Interview

What happens when a nuthouse runaway makes the acquaintance of a semi-psychotic reverend in a Memphis laundromat and the pair decides to take a road trip to North Mississippi? Get your riot gear on and prepare for the chaos. Neither crack dealer nor churchgoer is safe from this duo in The Bastard Hand, the debut novel of Heath Lowrance. The book was published by New Pulp Press, and it’s a real wild trip across the American South. Lowrance’s pen is on fire, and he writes with conviction, originality, and energy. For my full review, click here.

Lowrance was kind enough to answer some questions for Pulp Serenade about The Bastard Hand, as well as say a few words about his forthcoming projects.

Pulp Serenade: You begin The Bastard Hand with “In the beginning…” – So, how did The Bastard Hand begin for you? What’s the genesis of the story?

Heath Lowrance
: It's been a few years since I wrote it, so I don't really remember what sparked the idea. I know I was reading a lot of William Faulkner at the time, and some Charles Willeford, and those two very different writers bled into my head and did a bunch of unpleasant things. I think I wanted to do something really visceral, something that didn't flinch away from ideas we normally think of as sacred, although the religious stuff just sorta crept in there when I wasn't paying attention. Next thing I knew, it took center stage.

PS: I’m a sucker for first lines, they’re one of my favorite parts of novels. Is there any story behind your first line: “My Apocalypse began without the fanfare you might expect.” Did you consider other first lines?

HL: That first line was one of the last things I wrote, actually. I didn't know when I started the book it would end so violently. But when it was done, I thought it might be a good idea to clue the reader in about what he or she was getting into here. A guy getting kicked out of a bar is no big deal. But that guy later deciding that he's God sorta shines a different light on it.

PS: The Bastard Hand doesn’t have traditional chapter numbers or titles. It’s an interesting and bold choice that I really liked – what were your intentions behind this?

HL: The idea was to keep it moving, keep it all feeling like part of a long narrative stream, like a guy telling you a story. And chapter breaks, when you think about it, are sort of false, anyway. Chapter One, Chapter Two... I mean, who cares what the chapter number is?

Some readers didn't care for that approach, though, and I guess I can understand that. That's no clear place to put a bookmark and go to bed. I'm trying the Ken Bruen approach with my next book-- that is, having chapter breaks but not calling them chapter breaks.

PS: I really liked your short story “Testament” – it’s gusty, clever, and pretty damn funny. And like The Bastard Hand, it reinterprets the Bible through new eyes. I could almost imagine Phineas Childe reciting it. Was it written at the same time as The Bastard Hand, or is there any other connection between the two?

HL: I'm glad you like “Testament”--it's supposed to be the first in a series of little stories that will eventually re-tell the entire Old Testament from the POV of God himself, without me making up anything except maybe the Big Man's state of mind at the time. I've sort of stalled on it a little, because it's been a good ten years since I've read the Bible and I intend to be as true to that book as possible. I have some heavy re-reading in the future...

Other than my bizarre fascination with the concept of religious faith, they don't have much to do with each other. The Bastard Hand isn't trying to be anything but a good story, albeit with some serious religious underpinnings. Testament, though... well, I'd be lying if I said there wasn't an agenda there.... ha.

PS: As you were writing The Bastard Hand, did the story change much from the original direction you wanted to take it in?

HL: Yeah, for sure. As I said, all that religious stuff just snuck in on me and took over. I wasn't aware until later that I'd put words in Charlie's mouth--and sometimes in Reverend Childe's mouth--that reflected some of my own thoughts about religion. I hope this doesn't scare anyone off from the book...primarily, it's just a fast-paced, ultra-violent Southern Gothic Psycho-Noir.

PS: Classic noir novels seem to be set in LA or NY, but now we’re seeing a lot more of the country – Woodrell is writing about the Ozarks, you writing about Memphis and North Mississippi, and Sallis is also writing about Tennessee in his John Turner trilogy. What do you make of this trend?

HL: It's the sense of isolation, I think. It breeds paranoia and uneasiness for outsiders. The Ozarks or the Appalachians or the woods of North Mississippi still have the very heavy weight of history, they still have the dark charm of a scary folk tale or ghost story. Even Memphis, which is obviously NOT isolated in the same way, still wears all its past sins on its sleeves, apparent in the old cotton warehouses, for instance: they're high-priced bungalows now, but it was only a hundred and fifty years ago that those very same warehouses were where slaves were worked and beaten. Market Street or Front Street, which is now so bohemian, was once the place where black men were sold to the highest bidder.

You can't get away from any of that in Memphis. The ghosts of it still linger downtown. That sort of backdrop really lends itself well to dark crime stories.

PS: It seems to me that one of the challenges of writing noir is negotiating how dark a character can be before losing the reader’s sympathy. Both Phineas and Charlie have their share of psychotic moments, but to me there’s also something kind of “normal” about them, if I can use that word. They’re sympathetic and, in a way, relatable. Or at least understandable. This is my long-winded way of asking, can you say a few words about developing your main characters, and what challenges you faced when writing them?

HL: Both Charlie and the Reverend were amazingly easy to write. Maybe they're both relatable because the idea of good guy/bad guy just didn't come into the equation. I tried to give both of them real foibles--Charlie his desperate need for human contact, the Reverend his burning desire for... um, booze? Women? But more importantly his thirst to bring Hell down upon the town of Cuba Landing. All those things are twisted, I suppose, but easily understandable.

PS: Did you ever encounter any roadblocks when writing the novel? If so, how did you keep from giving up or scrapping the project altogether?

HL: When I was about halfway through the book, some years ago, my entire life collapsed around me. Got a divorce, went into a monstrous tailspin of depression. Crashed on many sofas, ultimately slept in the back of my car. This crazy shit went on for almost two years before I finally got my act together (well, as much as possible!). When I finally got back to The Bastard Hand I had a very different perspective. So the second half of the book is maybe a bit angrier, a bit more "spiraling out-of-control"-feeling, whereas the beginning is a bit funnier.

PS: What does your writing station look like?

HL: It's a god-awful mess. Books and papers everywhere. Notebooks and loose change, flash drives and Batman action figures.

PS: Token goofy interview question: favorite snack while writing?

HL: White Cheddar Cheez-Its, which drives my wife nuts. That cheezy stuff sticks to your fingers and gets all over the keyboard.

PS: For a while you were hosting an Essential Noir series on your blog, Psycho Noir, where guests contributed their own lists. Where did the idea for this come from, and what does your To Be Read pile look like now?

HL: The idea came only because I was truly interested in what other people with good taste were reading. And it paid off--there were several writers mentioned that I'd never heard of, let alone read, and I immediately started in on making myself familiar with them.

To Be Read, currently: Vincent Zandri's re-issue of Godchild is waiting for review, and I'm really looking forward to it. I just bought a stack of Loren Estleman books that I haven't read yet. And another stack of Frank Kane stuff. More Richard Stark, because I can't allow a month to go by without reading him. Also, you had suggested a few good Westerns for me, which I really need to get to because I'm thinking I'd like to write a Western eventually.

PS: What’s up next for Heath Lowrance?

HL: Good Lord willin' and the creek don't rise, I have a second novel, called City of Heretics, which takes my pathological need to poke at religion to ridiculous lengths. There's an agent looking at it now, the agent of my dreams, actually, and with any luck she'll take the bait. In the meantime, I'm at work on a third, which has nothing to do with religion and everything to do with Professional Wrestling. It's called The Heel.

Those, and a handful of short stories here and there. The usual.

PS: Thanks, Heath, for your participation and best wishes for The Bastard Hand!

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

"The Bastard Hand" by Heath Lowrance (New Pulp Press, 2011)

If someone asks you where the wildest, craziest stuff is happening these days, point them in the direction of New Pulp Press.

Their latest is Heath Lowrance’s The Bastard Hand, and it blazes a trail of chaos, crack houses, and unbridled craziness through the back alleys of Memphis and the backwoods of North Mississippi.

It all begins in a Memphis laundromat. Charlie Wesley, who recently escaped from the loony bin, meets Reverend Phineas Childe, a preacher just passing through the city on his way to Cuba landing, a small town in North Mississippi. Wesley is broke, beaten-up, and in need of a doctor—as well as a friend. And friendship is just what Phineas Childe is willing to provide. But Phineas is no ordinary preacher—he drinks, swears, frequents brothels, and his sermons border on the insane. As Wesley tries to figure out what Phineas is really up to, Wesley’s own life begins to spiral out of control as he gets involved with a band of crooks with plans to knock over a crack house.

Noir has its distinguished lineage of crazies, presided over by Jim Thompson’s Lou Ford (The Killer Inside Me). To this list we can now add Charlie Wesley, Lowrance’s narrator and the eyes through which we watch Phineas Childe’s master plan unfold. One of the challenges of employing a psychotic narrator is not to make their neuroses too obvious, or too schematic. Lowrance, like Thompson before him, succeeds in not only making his narrator compelling and disturbingly relatable, but also making their vision “normal” for the reader. Sure, we know something’s not right, but the true horror of the situation doesn’t reveal itself until late in the novel, when noir’s diabolical hand of fate is too far along for it to stop now.

Another thing I like about The Bastard Hand is Lowrance’s choice of locations: Memphis and rural North Mississippi. The stereotype of Noir is LA or NY, at night, shot in black and white, the neon glow of a bar sign reflecting off the grimy pool in the gutter. Yes, but there’s a lot more to noir than that, and a lot more to the country. American Crime Fiction has written its own geographical chronicle of the country, just as it has written its own history of the nation and its people. Fredric Brown set The Far Cry in Taos; James Sallis sets his John Turner trilogy in Tennessee; Megan Abbott takes on Phoenix in Bury Me Deep; Daniel Woodrell has the Ozarks; Vicki Hendricks and Day Keene used Florida; and soon Frank Bill will be introducing us to Crimes in Southern Indiana. On the one hand, The Bastard Hand takes us on a wild ride with a couple of psychos; on the other, it takes us on a tour into parts of the country that you might not have visited before. Maybe they’re familiar to you because (like Lowrance) you have lived there. I’ve never even been to Memphis or Mississippi before, but they sure make a great backdrop for a crime novel.

Part of the fun of The Bastard Hand is watching an apocalypse slowly unfurl from quiet, humble roots to a maelstrom that engulfs an entire town. That sort of escalating bedlam makes for an entertaining reader. More compelling than the mayhem, however, are the contrasting ways that Charlie and Phineas deal with it. Lowrance smartly made this duo like yin and yang. Charlie is impulsive—he rushes into crack houses without so much as a weapon, says what is on mind without thinking through what might happen, and generally lives life flying by the seat of his pants. Phineas, on the other hand, is the more calculated type. He’s intelligent, and his mind works with a labyrinthine logic. They’re both as demented as they are normal, just in different ways. There’s a human vulnerability to Charlie and a fiendish genius to Phineas; at the same time, Charlie was the one in a padded room while Phineas was out driving around the country.

Phineas explains to Charlie his philosophy about sanity and insanity:
“You gotta learn to use people’s craziness, son. That’s what it’s all about….Every single person in the world is a little bit off, y’ know, in one way or another. Everyone’s got their own secret little sickness that they nurture and care for. The wise man moves through the world, spotting the craziness and embracing it. It can work for you, if you know how to pull it out.”
Who’s the crazy one? Hell if I know. What I do know is that both these guys were damned fun to read about, and The Bastard Hand is a hell of a good read. The Bastard Hand may have just come out, but I’m already looking forward to seeing what devilish things Lowrance has up his sleeves for us next.

Check out Heath Lowrance's blog, Psycho Noir.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

James Reasoner's "Terran Girls Make Wonderful Wives" and Gary Lovisi's "Minesweeper" (Gryphon, 1995)

Is there anything that James Reasoner and Gary Lovisi can’t write? I doubt it. These two modern pulp pros have proven their excellence in any number of genres, and this Gryphon Double from 1995 finds the writers spinning a pair of terrific science-fiction stories.

James Reasoner’s Terran Girls Make Wonderful Wives is a sci-fi twist on the hardboiled private eye tradition. Wesley Holman is hired by Ed Donlin to find his missing mail order Earth bride, Shasharra. At first, he thinks it is just a case of a runaway wife, but when Luna’s crimelord starts expressing interest in the case, Holman realizes there’s something more sinister going on. Fast-paced and fun, with the right amounts of action and suspense, Terran Girls Make Wonderful Wives makes for a wonderful story.

"Then the doors of the elevator slid open and a fist rammed into my stomach. Technology notwithstanding, there's nothing like an old-fashioned punch in the gut to get your attention. I doubled over, gasping for air, and slung a blow of my own at the figure who had suddenly appeared in front of me." -- Terran Girls Make Wonderful Wives

Gary Lovisi’s Minesweeper is set amidst a post-terrorist Earth. The US and the Middle East have razed each other’s societies to rubble. It is a battle of exponentially increasing technology, with each army one-upping the other’s latest deadly innovation. Aaron is a “hunter” in old Times Square, and his job is to detect and diffuse the enemy’s walking suicide bombers. Technology and his skills are put to the test when Talena tells him that not only is a virus slowly degenerating him, but that their dreaded nemesis Rabin is loose in their district. Lovisi’s vision of the future is bleak and paranoid, and it is certainly interesting to read this prescient and terrifying story in light of the events that have happened since it was originally published in 1995.

"Then she was gone, leaving me alone in a crowd of a hundred thousand sweating, traveling citizens, all of whom were oblivious to the fact that someone among them was a walking bomb – a killer of monumental destruction, who at any moment might make the whole Sub-Sector a patch of dust and death to rival hell itself." -- Minesweeper

Raul Garcia Capella contributed the artwork to this edition.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Fredric Brown: Critical Perspectives 3

I've said it before, and I'll say it again: Fredric Brown is one of my all-time favorite writers.

As a writer, I admire Brown's craft, ingenuity, innovation, experimentation, and concision (particularly in his short stories). As a reader, I love to be entertained, amazed, shocked, and delighted by Brown's inimitable imagination. I also feel like I've grown with him as a reader. I remember the first time I read him, I totally didn't "get" him at all. The humor was so bizarre that a lot of it went over my head. But with the second book of his I tried, Here Comes a Candle, I was hooked. The radical form (which mixed the novel with theater, radio, and movie scripts, as well as newspaper fragments) was eye-opening, and the story was absolutely thrilling.

The unmistakable alchemy known as "Fredric Brown" was at once enough but also not enough: it gave me all that I wanted to experience as a reader, but left me always wanting more of it (but never more from it). In fact, that there are still books of his on my shelf that I haven't read is only because I am trying to stretch out my enjoyment of his work, and delay the inevitable day when I run out of "new" Fredric Browns. But then I'll have the pleasure of starting over and re-reading them all again.

This personal reaction was by way of introducing the next installment in Pulp Serenade's "Critical Perspectives" series, which examines vintage reviews of classic writers. (Previous entries were on Day Keene and David Goodis.) I'm very pleased to see how well his books were received by critics in his own time, for the most part. You can't please all of the people all of the time, but it looks like Brown came pretty close. Take a look below and see what the critics had to say about your favorite Fredric Brown novel. (I couldn't find reviews for The Dead Ringer, Death Has Many Doors, or The Mind Thing.)

The Fabulous Clipjoint: "The motive for the killing is cockeyed, the plot is screwy and the title of the book has nothing whatever to do with the story." – Anthony Boucher, New York Times, 16 March 1947

**Years later, Boucher revised his opinion: "The Fabulous Clipjoint…received the Mystery Writers of America's Edgar as best first mystery novel of the year and remains one of the outstanding winners of that annual honor." – Anthony Boucher, New York Times, 24 Feb 1957

Murder Can Be Fun: "Unless our memory is at fault, this is by far the best thing that Frederick [sic] Brown has done up to this time. It bids fair to be the most ingeniously plotted detective story of the year." – Isaac Anderson, New York Times, 7 Nov 1948

The Bloody Moonlight: "However uncomfortable for Ed [Hunter], for the reader it's exciting." – Isaac Anderson, New York Times, 29 May 1949

What Mad Universe: "…while Fredric Brown is no H.G. Wells, he has dreamed up an amusing and inventive story….Lots of fun." – Jane Cobb, New York Times, 13 Nov 1949

The Screaming Mimi: "Mr. Brown's preceding books have brought him quite an enthusiastic following, and his current one is not going to let anyone down. It is as fast, smooth, and well-plotted as the others – and it centers around a ripper. Mr. Brown manages to convey a goodly amount of the visceral terror an actually ripper would induce in the reader." – Anthony Boucher, New York Times, 27 Nov 1949

The Screaming Mimi: "Treat your menfolks to this one." – Albuquerque Tribune, undated

Compliments of a Fiend: "Purely as a detective story the book is weak. It sags in the middle through a long investigation of blind alleys and is finally solved only because Ed at last takes, on page 195, a logical step which he could and should have taken on page 77. But, as the story of a young man coming of age in Chicago, it is warm and likable." – Anthony Boucher, New York Times, 16 April 1950

Here Comes a Candle: "This is a psychological novel of first rank – a story as terrifying and tragic to the reader as it was for poor Joe Bailey, whose life it encompasses. It is a bloody, cruel but never depressing glimpse of reality that few authors would dare tackle….It is a brilliantly written biography of frustration. It's closing chapter is a shocker you'll long remember." – Richard L. Blakesley, Chicago Daily Tribune, 6 Aug 1950

Here Comes a Candle: "Ellie Dravich and the beautiful Francy Scott are as lifeless as dressmakers' dummies, so Joe's ultimate choice is simply one of brunette over blonde." – Nelson Algren, New York Times, 13 Aug 1950

Here Comes a Candle: "Comes close to fulfilling this observer's definition of the perfect psychological thriller….On the whole, it's the sort of hand-tailored terror that should redeem your next rainy week-end." – William Du Bois, New York Times, 26 Aug 1950

Night of the Jabberwock: "…a zany yarn that's sheer delight….Perhaps, Mr. Brown takes a few too many excursions to Wonderland and wastes too much time at Smiley's bar – but these are pleasant places and once the violence starts, there is swift and varied action until the end. If you are interested in a small-town paper, chess, Lewis Carroll or in a charmingly wacky whodunit, here's your book." – Margery H. Oakes, New York Times, 31 Dec 1950

The Far Cry: "Creative originality becomes, of course, more difficult each year in the detective story; but Fredric Brown manages…to achieve a brand-new plot twist, and to encase it in an unusually solid novel. To hint at much of the plot might rob you of the extremely rare and welcome sensation of pure surprise which I experienced in reading the last chapter (though I could wish that Brown had not pushed on past that surprise to a somewhat too glib and tricky ending). Let me simply say that the book contains a fine bitter study of a bad marriage, an admirable sense of the reality of murder, and a well-sketched background of Brown's home state of New Mexico." – Anthony Boucher, New York Times, 30 Dec 1951

The Far Cry: "I couldn't quite make out what happened. But it's an original all right and a distinct gripper." – Maurice Richardson, The Observer, 19 Oct 1952

We All Killed Grandma: "Seems not so much a first draft as a hasty attempt to rewrite a pulp novelette to book length. Brown's novels have varied from superlative to disappointing; but hitherto his most uneven stories of murder and of science fiction have at least been startlingly original. This one is simply a standard stock case of arbitrary amnesia, such as only flourishes in murder novels, with action and detection notably absent. I suppose you can't blame Brown for resting his dazzlingly inventive mind; the next one will probably be a honey." – Anthony Boucher, New York Times, 25 May 1952

The Deep End: "The story line is simple (perhaps too much so) and unsurprising; but the high school school hero who is also an unobtrusive mass murderer is an unusually terrifying killer… Sex is plentiful and outspoken enough to please all reprint readers, but honestly written and necessary to the plot; and the sharp prose and narrative movement are Brown at his best." – Anthony Boucher, New York Times, 28 Dec 1952

Mostly Murder: "Those who know only his novels will find the same sharp vigor and individuality here, in neat, tight packages – solid specimens of the top level of pulp writing in the Nineteen Forties." – Anthony Boucher, New York Times, 14 June 1953

Madball: "It's a carnival you'll remember more sharply than any you've attended….But the background is much better than the story, which is burdened by a technically trying effort to write both an 'inverted' story and a whodunit at the same time, a good deal of straining for 'irony,' and enough sex, of assorted varieties, for a half dozen novels." – Anthony Boucher, New York Times, 4 Oct 1943

The Lights in the Sky Are Stars: "A muddled piece of futurinalia. Treatment of present day politics is grossly improbable, and to achieve one of those 'arty' endings, Brown alienates the reader from his main character." – Mark Reinsberg, Chicago Daily Tribune, 28 Feb 1954

His Name Was Death: "Masterfully delivered tale…Brilliant wallop in climax." – Drexel Drake, Chicago Daily Tribune, 4 July 1954

Angels and Spaceships: "Mr. Brown shows that he is also a master of the vignette with the shock, or surprise, ending…..[A]n eminently worth-while acquisition for any reader, whether tyro or fan." – Villiers Gerson, New York Times, 24 Oct 1954

Angels and Spaceships: "Science-fiction at its fascinating best." – Edmund Crispin, The Observer, 31 July 1955

Angels and Spaceships: "…shows this brilliantly fanciful master at his best." – Kingsley Amis, The Observer, 7 Oct 1962

The Wench is Dead: "Despite appearances, don't look for a regular whodunit here; as such it has marked weaknesses….the gratifyingly unconventional story is told with conciseness and bite." – Anthony Boucher, New York Times, 8 May 1955

Martians Go Home: "Doesn't quite reach the hilarity of his What Mad Universe – but let's not be a carping Martian! It's a rare piece of satire." – J. Francis McComas, New York Times, 4 Dec 1955

The Lenient Beast: "Nicely calculated….the book represents an extraordinarily successful fusion of Dragnet-like police routine with the novel of psychological suspense." – Anthony Boucher, New York Times, 15 April 1956

The Lenient Beast: "One of Brown's best yet." – Anthony Boucher, New York Times, 2 Dec 1956

Rogue in Space: "[The character of] Crag is a wooden invention; his story makes so little sense that one wishes it had ended on page 98." – Villiers Gerson, New York Times, 17 March 1957

The Office: "Unfortunately, this is all very dull…" – J.M., New York Time, 27 April 1958

One for the Road: "It's an agreeable enough leisurely story…but its movement is, for Brown, surprisingly unurgent, and the mystery is resolved in an unpardonably chancy manner." – Anthony Boucher, New York Times, 17 Aug 1958

One for the Road: "Neatly tangled puzzle in diverting small town stage setting." – Drexel Drake, Chicago Daily Tribune, 28 Sept 1958

The Late Lamented: "The puzzle is a simple if neat one; but you'll find the spectacle of Ed [Hunter] falling in love even more agreeable than Ed and Am as detectives." – Anthony Boucher, New York Times, 22 Feb 1959

Knock Three-One-Two: "The story, difficult even to hint at, is adroitly unrolled and ingeniously (if maybe too neatly) concluded." – Anthony Boucher, New York Times, 16 Aug 1959

Knock Three-One-Two: "[A] good little thriller….A bit sexy, perhaps…" – Francis Iles, The Guardian, 9 Dec 1960

Nightmares and Geezenstacks: "Fredric Brown has the enviable ability to tell an entire short story in approximately the length of this column….Many are criminous, more are fantastic or science-fictional, some are bawdy, and all are at once delightful to the reader and maddening to the rival author who tries to emulate their technique. There's more fun in this small volume than in a half-dozen collections by less miraculously concise writers." – Anthony Boucher, New York Times, 20 Aug 1961

Five Day Nightmare: "A tight, taut, five day excursion into controlled terror….[T]he wily Mr. Brown outdoes himself again in the plotting." – Dorothy B. Hughes, Los Angeles Times, 22 April 1962

Five Day Nightmare: "…builds up the suspense to anyone's satisfaction." – Francis Iles, The Guardian, 21 Feb 1964

The Murderers: "First half promising. Then gets wild." – Maurice Richardson, The Observer, 18 Feb 1962

The Shaggy Dog and Other Murders: "…a collection of Fredric Brown's incomparable short stories which leaves the reader demanding more." – Dorothy B. Hughes, Los Angeles Times, 14 April 1963

The Shaggy Dog and Other Murders: "…contains ten stories from the pulp detective magazines of the 1940's, all ingeniously entertaining and highly professional, and suggesting that we need more unpretentiously good collections from the days when the crime magazines seemed to hit a higher average of storytelling than they do today." – Anthony Boucher, New York Times, 12 May 1963

The Shaggy Dog and Other Murders: "…airy trifles by no means without humor…" – Francis Iles, The Guardian, 2 Oct 1964

Sunday, March 27, 2011

"Amos Flagg Rides Out" by Clay Randall (Clifton Adams) (Gold Medal, 1966)

Clay Randall’s Amos Flagg Rides Out was the third entry in the Amos Flagg series, following Lawman and High Gun. While there certain similarities with the earlier books—that same great mixture of Western humor, action, and suspense, as well as the same terrific core cast of characters—Rides Out doesn’t merely repeat the formula. From the start, it’s apparent that a number of things are beginning to change—and not necessarily to the sheriff's advantage—and it is up to Amos Flagg to get things back to normal.

Something’s afoot in Sangaree County. A mysterious Chinese worker that rode into town on the stagecoach has gotten himself involved in a murder, which has the town on the verge of mutating into a riotous lynch mob. Meanwhile, Amos Flagg’s once-loyal deputy, Evan R. Webb, is now running against him in the upcoming election. Also, Webb suddenly has both the political and financial backing of a local religious group. And hiding amongst this group are two suspicious individuals who seem to shy away whenever the Sheriff is near.

If that isn’t strange enough, Amos Flagg’s father—the notorious outlaw Gunner Flagg, who spent most of his life either in jail or eluding the law—is now his son’s only deputy.

Amos Flagg Rides Out is a much more involved and complex story than either of its predecessors. There are numerous intersecting subplots and a lot of shifting between different characters’ perspectives. Clay Randall makes it all seem so effortless, however, and despite the intricate structure the novel reads very clearly.

Rides Out is also a lot more political than either Lawman or High Gun. Much of the drama revolves around issues of the separation of church and state (or the lack thereof), campaign funding, lobbyists, and false political promises. These are issues that are just as relevant today as they were back then. (Ed Gorman does a terrific job writing about some of these issues in modern politics with his Dev Conrad series.) Clay Randall also discusses the mob mentality, and racial and gender prejudices, in American society. Liz Caroline, local saloon owner and Amos Flagg’s paramour, says it best:
“Some folks don’t need a reason to hate. They do it as natural as breathin’…You ask a saloon girl about it sometime. Of course, we usually get it from the ladies of the town, and from ones like Genthe, but I guess we know nearly as much about that kind of hate as Ah Chee does.”
While I was disappointed that Amos Flagg’s cat, El Cazador, didn’t play as a strong a role in this book, one character I was glad to see get a much more prominent role is Amos’ father, Gunner. He’s changed a lot since his first appearance in Lawman, when he was fresh out of prison and on his way to Sangaree to rob the local bank. In High Gun, Gunner was a kindler, gentler outlaw, but his scheming mind was still thinking along crooked lines. Now, in Rides Out, he seems to have genuinely reformed and is trying to repair his relationship with his son (without making it too obvious).
“The old man heaved a long, silent sigh. He could no more erase a misspent lifetime than Amos could forget it. From time to time the old bitterness would boil over. Gunner accepted it. That was one advantage to age—learning to accept fact.”
On the surface he still plays the hardcase, the ex-con with nothing but contempt for law and civilized society. But when his son needs help, Gunner steps up. Amos, however, isn’t so quick to forgive and forget. The father-son conflict is very subtly written, and one of the most effective and compassionate parts of the Amos Flagg saga.

All in all, another terrific Gold Medal Western from Clay Randall (aka Clifton Adams), who is fast becoming one of my favorite writers. Great stories, strong characters, swift pacing, with nice doses of action and humor – the guy knew how to write a damned good book.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Dave Zeltserman's "Old Wives' Tales" at Beat to a Pulp

Dave Zeltserman is over at Beat to a Pulp with a real zinger this week called "Old Wives' Tales."

You all know the old saying, All Roads Lead to Rome?

The pulp equivalent would have to be something like, All Roads Lead to Crime. Even the most innocent gesture or innocuous activity can lead a character down the darkest paths.

"Old Wives' Tales" begins with a salmon dinner between three old pals: husband and wife Craig and Susan, and their friend Felix. Soon, insults are hurled, sides must be taken, and plans of attack must be made.

It's a terrific story with a top-notch mix of suspense and humor, as well as echoes of Fredric Brown in its melding of a seemingly ordinary scenario that subtly (and quite suddenly) turns extraordinary.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

"The Bayou Trilogy" by Daniel Woodrell (Mulholland Books, 2011)

Sometimes an author writes his own best epithet. In the case of Daniel Woodrell, he says it all in this one brilliant, reticent snatch of dialogue:

“Damn…This place makes you think.”

Let me back up a few paces and give it some context.

Towards the middle of The Ones You Do, the third and final book in Daniel Woodrell’s The Bayou Trilogy, a homicidal gambler named Lunch finds himself stuck in Natchez, Mississippi. While he is waiting for his car to be fixed, he takes a walk around the town. He looks and ponders at the sights and sounds that surround him: the land, the river, the birds, the people, their stories. Lunch comes across a leaflet about the local Natchez Trace landmark. Specificity is Woodrell’s stock in trade, and no detail reaches his page by accident. So, when Woodrell points out that Lunch reads this leaflet twice, he means that we should pay close attention to what it is that he is reading and how he reacts.
“John Thompson Hare, the hoodlum, was among the first who shrewdly saw the possibilities of banditry on the Trace. The Trace made him rich, but moody. In its wilderness he went to pieces, saw visions, was captured, and hanged.”

“Damn,” Lunch said. “This place makes you think.”

The man on the next bench said, “It’s got a bizarre history that’s awfully attractive.”

“Our forefathers,” Lunch said, “were a ragged bunch.”

“Oh yeah, buddy,” the man said. “The dudes down here in historical days were truly some rough cobs. No doubt about it.

“Some of it’s sad, too,” Lunch said.
The Deep South. Crime. Wilderness. Ambition. Impulse. Promise. Prosperity. Pursuit. Killing. Failure. Family. Sadness. History. The more you look at that passage, the more themes emerge from between the words, between the lines. These are the fabrics of Woodrell’s Bayou Trilogy, which he weaves into a beautiful and incomparable tapestry of crime fiction, cultural history, and just damned good storytelling.

The Bayou Trilogy (Mulholland Books, 2011) comprises three early novels by Woodrell: Under the Bright Lights (originally published in 1986), Muscle for the Wing (1988), and The Ones You Do (1992). They are, respectively, his first, third, and fourth, novels. Each is set in St. Bruno, Louisiana and feature police detective Rene Shade and his family, friends, and enemies (often there is little distinction between these categories). Though they each could stand to be read on their own, it is a far more rewarding experience them collectively and chronologically, as they not only chart the development of the characters, but also the growth of a major writer. Beginning with the first book, Woodrell is refining a distinctive thematic and stylistic approach that only gets better with each successive book.

Under the Bright Lights introduces us to Rene Shade, a police detective whose colleagues don’t trust him because his brother, Tip, runs a local bar where the local criminal element dwells. Tip and his clientele distrust Rene because he works for the law. Shade’s other brother, Francois, works in the DA’s office, and is more willing to “play ball” than Shade. Family is crucial to Woodrell’s world—the mysterious bonds that tie people together, and the equally mysterious divisions that keep them apart. Shade’s family is a microcosm for St. Bruno, which is itself sort of a microcosm for Woodrell’s larger worldview in which the moral boundaries between good and bad, right and wrong, friend and foe, family and stranger, are blurred beyond recognition. Once again, a quote from Woodrell is the best way of explaining the relationships of his characters:
“A sort of fond sadness meandered through Shade. It was partly because he loved his brother and knew him perfectly, partly because he did not know him at all. The unlighted chamber where one’s true and most secret longings and convictions are housed has a door that is impressively sealed. The more you turn the knob and peek through the keyhole, the more you have to guess, and the less you know.”
Under the Bright Lights
also introduces us to The Swamp, which is to become a powerful metaphor in each of the novels in The Bayou Trilogy. “The key to the swamp was to agree with it, accept the way it was.” As the Trilogy progresses, and Rene finds himself deeper enmeshed in a morally ambiguous world, he finds that indeed the only way to navigate life is to “accept the way it was.” One can’t fight one’s family forever; neither can Rene. It’s a lesson that, even at the end of the series, some of his relatives are still learning.

Structurally, The Bayou Trilogy follows a rough but consistent pattern: a dynamic, dramatic opening crime that sets the story in motion, followed by a prismatic exploration of all the players involved. The duration of the stories is often quite short—sometimes days, other times mere hours—but Woodrell’s pacing is a decided contrast. Woodrell has the pacing of Robert Altman—a keen patience for letting characters speak, allowing them to hang out and grab a beer (and finish said beer) before moving on with the story. Woodrell and Altman find their greatest insights in those moments between the actions. It may be frustrating at first, but once you get on board and let them manipulate time in their own way, the rewards are seemingly endless.

Under the Bright Lights saw Rene Shade investigating a political murder as an officer of the law. Muscle for the Wing finds Rene moving further from the black-and-white morality of the Law. Here, he is asked unofficially to find a group of renegade robbers who held-up a high-stakes poker game and killed an off-duty officer. In exploring two types of political power—the “official” law versus the “unofficial,” corrupt law that manages things behind the scenes—Woodrell evokes some of the spirit of Peter Rabe, though the two obviously have very different styles and are, at least on the surface, writing about different things.

Woodrell writes about a detective caught between two moral poles, whereas Rabe writes about a mobster who wants out (Dig My Grave Deep) and an off-his-rocker racketeer (Kill the Boss Good-By). But when you get down to it, are Woodrell’s Ozarks any different from Rabe’s syndicates? Both authors are writing about about imperfect characters navigating imperfect worlds and, in a way, about locating humanity in some of the most unlikely of places. The backwoods bayou of Woodrell’s novels is—at least to me—as foreign a world as Rabe’s gangland, yet the power relations and pressures to conform are instantly recognizable. Individualism is key to both writers, and their stories are as much about the dire need for individualism in the modern age as much as they are about the price one pays for remaining true to oneself.

In Muscle for the Wing, a big-shot criminal kingpin asks, “Detective Shade, do you understand the world you live in?” Rene’s response: “No, I don’t. And neither do you.” There’s something philosophical in Shade’s words that recalls Socrates’ famous declaration: “As for me, all I know is that I know nothing, for when I don't know what justice is, I'll hardly know whether it is a kind of virtue or not, or whether a person who has it is happy or unhappy.” Rene also struggles with these same questions of virtue and justice—especially justice. Jadick, leader of the hold-up gang, says, “We’re going to use this town to get even….That’s what everybody really wants, is to get even.” Meanwhile, the Mayor wants this to be an “unofficial” investigation because the justice he wants isn’t exactly legal. Caught once again in the middle, mediating two amoral poles, is Rene Shade, an imperfect man for imperfect times, and one hell of a compelling character.

Woodrell saves the best for last. The Ones You Do is a masterful conclusion to The Bayou Trilogy, a book that not only brings Rene Shade’s story full circle, but also epitomizes the stylistic and thematic innovations that had distinguished the series from its beginnings. Rene Shade is on probation from the police department, Tip still runs the Catfish Bar, Francois is the Assistant DA, and their mom still runs a pool hall. And then one day their estranged father, John X. Shade, shows up, bringing along a daughter they never knew existed. However, what John doesn’t tell anyone is that he is on the run from a gambler to whom he owes a great deal of money.

John might not tell the whole truth, but there’s certainly a lot of honesty to some of what he does say. This particular line (which is told to Rene) is one of the best in the whole anthology: “Honesty can siphon off a few regrets and resentments if you tap into it. Let that sink in.” Fatalism is a recurring theme in all three parts of The Bayou Trilogy and this line, for all its brevity, is a rather profound and sage suggestion for how to deal with it. These three books seem to be saying that crime is just as natural a part of life as the swamp, even if it is a little on the nasty side. You can ignore it, or try and fight it, but it will always be there. Sitting at the bar. Waiting for you at the dinner table. It’s there in bed next to you when you go to sleep, and it kisses you when you wake up the morning. Unless, of course, it punches you in the face, which sometimes happens. You just gotta’ deal with it. It’s not easy, but that’s what Shade is learning how to do. Take it from him.

If the detectives of yesteryear, like Philip Marlowe or Mike Hammer, were like knights, descendants of chivalry trying to clean up the streets in their own way (Hammer seemed to require large quantities of blood), then what does that make Rene Shade? He’s someone that lives with crime the way that Marlowe and Hammer never could—or would. Crime is part of Shade’s blood. It’s part of his family, part of his community, and—as he learns—part of him, as well. There are hints of this as early as Under the Bright Lights, but it really takes the full cycle of all three novels for his character to fully emerge in ways that even he wasn’t prepared for. This is one of the benefits of reading all three of them.

I could gush on and on for umpteen more paragraphs, and I’ve already one on much longer than anticipated. Somehow, I actually imagined that I could write about all three novels in under five hundred words. I was wrong—by about 1300 words and counting. So, I’ll conclude the review by being blunt.

The Bayou Trilogy is more than a landmark of crime fiction; it is an impressive and important addition to American letters. Bravo, Daniel Woodrell, and long live Rene Shade.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

"Gang Girl / Sex Bum" by Don Elliott (Robert Silverberg) (Stark House, 2011)

Stark House Press delivers two more overlooked classics from the paperback treasure chest. Gang Girl and Sex Bum and were originally published under the name “Don Elliott,” a pseudonym which has since been attributed to its rightful owner, the legendary Robert Silverberg.

Silverberg’s introduction to this volume, “Those Good Old Soft-Core Days,” is a absorbing and insightful remembrance of the paperback publishing industry in the late 1950s and early 1960s. While it’s a very personal (and quite humorous) personal history, Silverberg’s intro also captures a significant piece of literary history that is overdue for attention. Books like Tropic of Cancer and publishers like Grove are often referenced when discussing American literature and censorship, so it was really fascinating to read about the Nightstand and Midwood books and the role they played during this time period. Even if Gang Girl and Sex Bum don’t sound like your cup of tea (but hey, don’t judge a book by its cover), Silverberg’s essay is highly recommended for anyone interested in the history and evolution of American literature.

As for the books themselves, Gang Girl and Sex Bum offer finely tuned thrills and impressive, dynamic craftsmanship. Silverberg was only in his mid-20s when he wrote these, but already he knew how to churn out sleek, vigorous novels at a rate that would break most writers back, if not exhaust their creativity. 2 or 3 novels a month, and sometimes 4. For five years. Let’s give Mr. Silverberg a round of applause.

Of the two novels, I liked Sex Bum best. It was originally published in 1963 by Midnight Readers. Set in upstate New York, it’s about a cocky delivery boy with his eyes set on the big city. Seeing an opportunity to get in with the local mob, he makes a name for himself during a poolhall fight and starts working his way up the ranks, and where he stops no one knows. This is a novel of ambition and comeuppance, and Johnny Price is like a backwoods Icarus. There’s lots of smalltown gangster flavor, and Silverberg achieves a nice balance of suspense and humor.

Gang Girl (originally published in 1959 by Nightstand) was Silverberg’s second book as “Don Elliott.” It’s a juvie crime novel about Lora Menotti, a sixteen-year-old girl whose parents move her from the Bronx to the Lower East Side in hopes that she’ll clean up her act and leave the gang life behind her. Instead, she takes up with the local Cougars, and begins to work her way to the top of the pack. The teenage angst displayed in the book isn’t so different from Rebel Without a Cause, and while nothing could be more different from my life than Lora Menotti and the Cougars, it’s hard not to understand their need to rebel against family, school, and society. More shocking than the sex today is the level of violence in the book. The fights are gritty and merciless. As a warning to some readers, there is a rape scene that is quite disturbingly depicted. It’s that scene that actually made me think about the book in a different way and recognize how powerful Silverberg’s writing actually is, if it can still provoke this strong a reaction fifty years later.

Closing out the volume is a terrific Afterword by Michael Hemmingson called “Sin, Softcore and Silverberg,” which puts the novels in context.

Stark House has been on a roll in 2011 so far. First was Peter Rabe's The Silent Wall/The Return of Marvin Palaver (reviewed here) and Jada M. Davis' One for Hell, already in the works for later this year are trios from Harry Whittington and Day Keene, as well as an Orrie Hitt double.

Keep up the good work, Stark House!

Original Gang Girl art from
Original Sex Bum art from Leonard Shoup.

Monday, March 21, 2011

"Edge #2: Ten Grand" by George G. Gilman

After avenging the murder of his brother in The Loner, Josiah Hedges—aka Edge—returns in Ten Grand (alternately known as Ten Thousand Dollars, American). George G. Gilman (Terry Harknett) opens the novel with a great duel between Edge, armed only with his iconic razor, and a rattlesnake. For those unfamiliar with Edge, the battle tells you everything you need to know about his character: he’s faster, more cunning, and more deadly than even the desert’s most natural fighter, the rattlesnake. And he’s got that razor hidden in a pouch around his neck. That razor is his best friend and everyone else’s worst enemy.

A group of Mexican bandits led by El Matador have raided the town of Peaceville, Arizona where Edge was temporarily installed as sheriff. The bandits took all the money in the bank, and they took all of Edge’s hidden loot as well. They’ve also taken him hostage, as well. Edge could care less what happens to the town, or Gail, the woman he was seeing. He does, however, care about the money that was stolen from him, and about exacting revenge in the most brutal way possible, and about those rumors of $10,000 hidden somewhere down in Mexico…

Readers of Gilman’s Edge series know that cover’s promise of “a violent new series” isn’t false advertising. The heroism, chivalry, and strong moral center of the classical Western have been replaced by brutality, savagery, sadism and an almost nihilistic belief that all sins must be paid for in flesh and blood. Mounds of flesh, and bucks of blood. And most of it freshly cut by Edge’s sharp, unerring razor.

The Edge books may not be for the faint of heart, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t without a sense of humor. Edge has pithy, Bond-esque one liners, such as when he says, “Hey, don’t get cut up about it,” after slicing open someone’s throat. There’s also suggestions of screwball comedy in Edge’s rapport with Amy, a girl from Maine who finds herself alone in the desert:
“What’s your name,” Edge asked as the woman approached.
“Amy,” she answered.

“Pretty, he said, holstering the Remington. “Don’t match your looks.”

“What’s yours?”

“They call me Edge.”

“It suits,” she told him shortly.
Screwball, it may be, but don’t expect any Katherine Hepburn/Cary Grant romance from Edge and Amy. The way their “meet cute” ends is anything but “cute.”

Originally published in 1971, Edge: Ten Grand holds up as fast, furious, and fantastic forty years later. It’s also still bloody as hell, but very entertaining to read.

Edition pictured: Pinnacle Books, Fourth Printing, January 1974.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Daniel Woodrell/Mulholland Books Contest

Mulholland Books is giving away 10 copies of the upcoming Daniel Woodrell collection, The Bayou Trilogy. Check out the rules and enter the contest here.

Celebrate the launch of Mulholland Books! Enter below for your chance to win one of 10 advance copies of THE BAYOU TRILOGY by Daniel Woodrell.

THE BAYOU TRILOGY highlights the origins of a one-of-a-kind author, a writer who for over two decades has created an indelible representation of the shadows of the rural American experience and has steadily built a devoted following among crime fiction aficionados and esteemed literary critics alike.

“Really cool . . . Jump on these three top-shelf books.”-Library Journal

“There’s poetry in Woodrell’s mayhem, each novel-and scene-full of gritty and memorable Cajun details.” -Publishers Weekly, starred review

Entries must be received by April 1st and winners will be notified by April 15, 2011.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Jack Seabrook on Fredric Brown's "The Night the World Ended"

Jack Seabrook has written a great article over at Barebones E-Zine on a television adaptation Fredric Brown's "The Night the World Ended" made for Alfred Hitchcock Presents. The original short story, which first appeared in the January 1945 issue of Dime Mystery and was reprinted in both Mostly Murder and Carnival of Crime, is among my all-time favorite Fredric Brown stories. The plot concerns several newspapermen who pull a prank on the town drunk: they print a phony newspaper headline saying the world is going to end that night just to see what he'll do. It encapsulates so much of what Brown did best: interweave philosophical inquiry and existential irony in a dark, suspenseful, and absolutely fun short story. Bizarre, compelling, disturbing, and even a reference to Martins! Yup, it's all there. "The Night the World Ended" is, in my opinion, Fredric Brown at his best.

As Jack Seabrook notes in his article, the television adaptation "is more sad than suspenseful." While they make a number of changes to the story, I still found it very enjoyable, and I think the show still captures the cruelty and humor of Brown's original story.

For a more in-depth analysis, be sure to read Seabrook's article. Seabrook is the leading authority on all-things Fredric Brown, and he wrote a biography of the author called Martians and Misplaced Clues: The Life and Work of Fredric Brown. Seabrook's other articles at Barebones include:

Fredric Brown's "Arena" and The Outer Limits

Fredric Brown: Two Lost Stories by Guy Fredric Brown

Fredric Brown: Night of the Psycho

Fredric Brown: The Deadly Weekend

The Alfred Hitchcock Presents episode originally aired on April 28, 1957. There were a couple of great lines in the episode. These two were my favorites:

"Every joke's got to have a pay-off. This joke's got to have a pay-off, too."

"A guy tries to do right the last night of his life and nothing goes right"

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Lawrence Block Interviews Lawrence Block

Over at Mystery Scene, Lawrence Block has written a fond and quite funny remembrance of his psudenoymous early work called "Remembering Andy, Anne, Shelly, Lesley, Ben & Jill." The article cleverly takes the form of a self-interview, which is actually rather fitting, considering that it is dealing with his multiple identities as a writer.

Recently, Open Road Integrated Media has published eBooks of 40+ of Block's out of print work written under various pen names, many of which were (as Block explains), "Soft–core erotic novels for Nightstand and Midwood and Beacon and Berkley. Lesbian fiction. I mean, who would put his own name on a book for Beacon? (Well, Charles Willeford would. But not I.)"

In the article, Block's self-dialogue discusses how his perception of the work has changed over the years and why he's decided to allow them to be republished. The backstory to Block's career is very interesting to read about, and sometimes the self-interview leads to some very funny places:

Anyway, one thing led to another. One of the Jill Emerson titles is A Madwoman’s Diary, and in the course of writing about it I remembered its origin. The plot was based on a psychosexual case history in a book by John Warren Wells. That’s a pen name I used on collections of psychosexual case histories.

Which you drew from a shrink’s files?

No, which I fabricated. I made up the case histories, and one of them sort of stayed in my mind, and I decided it would make an interesting novel.

So you plagiarized yourself.

I prefer to think of it as recycling.
Block has written new Afterwords to each of these eBooks.

Open Road isn't the only one to be exploring this part of Block's career. Subterranean Press recently brought out Hellcats and Honeygirls, a collection of early novels written by Block and Donald E. Westlake.

And Block himself will be returning to an old pseudonym, Jill Emerson, for Hard Case Crime's first hardcover novel, Getting Off. It will be published this coming September. You can read the first chapter online here. Below is a short excerpt:
"You stay at the table long enough, you’re sure to give it all back. Luck goes one way and then it goes the other, like a pendulum swinging, and the house has always got more money than you do and it can afford to wait you out. Any casino’ll break you in the long run, even a pissant low–rent Injun casino way the hell up in the Upper Peninsula." He grinned. "But in the long run we’re all dead, so the hell with the long run. In the short run a person can get lucky and do himself some good, and it might never have happened if you didn’t come along and blow on my dice. You’re my lucky charm, sweet thing."
Also, coming this May under Block's own name is the latest Matthew Scudder novel, A Drop of the Hard Stuff, and it's really terrific and highly recommended. I reviewed the book earlier this week.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

"A Drop of the Hard Stuff" by Lawrence Block (Mulholland Books, 2011)

Confession: series novels intimidate me. Particularly when they’ve been around for over three decades like the Matthew Scudder novels, and especially when they’re written by a legend like Lawrence Block. Which one do I start with—do I have to go in order—can I ever catch up? Having only read the first in the series, Sins of the Fathers (from 1976), I took a leap and barreled headlong into Block’s latest, A Drop of the Hard Stuff. I’m glad I did.

A “drop” only begins to describe how potent A Drop of the Hard Stuff is. Pensive and philosophical, at times bleak, and at others surprisingly warm and human. It’s written with the worldly wisdom and relaxed dexterity that reminds us why Lawrence Block is truly a master novelist. I could pile on adjectives, but they’d not only fail to do justice to his accomplishments, but they wouldn’t befit his lean prose, which doesn’t rely on a thesaurus to make its impact.

The story begins as a late-night reverie between two old friends. Scudder is asked if, had things been different, would he have become a criminal instead of a cop? The question sends Scudder back to his first year in Alcoholics Anonymous, when he ran into a childhood friend, Jack Ellery, who took that other path and became a criminal. Since then, Ellery had cleaned up his act, gone straight, and given up the booze. So why would someone want to put two bullets in his head? As the unlicensed PI Scudder looks into the murder, he sees just how hard the path of redemption was for Ellery—and how much harder it is going to be for himself.

A Drop of the Hard Stuff is hardly about tracking down a killer, however. It’s more about owning up to what you’ve done to yourself and what you’ve done to others. Block calls it “The wreckage of the past.” It’s also about not being able to admit certain things to yourself. Now that he is in AA, Scudder is more preoccupied with alcohol than ever before. He thinks he has been sober a year, but his mind is still in the throes of addiction.

Block conveys the anguish and anxiety of addiction as I’ve rarely read before. Alcohol has become something of a cliché in crime fiction, but in Block’s hands it has renewed meaning. The booze feels real, and it feels terrible. There’s nothing romantic about Scudder’s pain, whether alcoholic, romantic, or otherwise—his wounds run deep, and he’s only beginning to realize how deep they run for others. As a police contact tells him, “Scudder, you’ve got no fucking idea what keeps me up nights.”

Maybe Scudder does, and maybe he doesn’t. One of the blessings of A Drop of the Hard Stuff is the ensemble of characters that Scudder comes across, and the brief glimpses Block allows us into their lives—ephemeral, but resonant. In this way, Block is subverting one of the foundational myths of the Private Eye genre, which is that one man can change the world. There’s a fatalistic resolve to A Drop of the Hard Stuff: perhaps Scudder can’t change things, perhaps he can’t make things better for others, and perhaps he’s not as important as he once thought. As one character tells him, “I’m not really the piece of shit the world revolves around….I guess I’m not the prime mover of the Universe. I guess I’m just another drunk.” A depressing thought, but one that Scudder himself wrestles with throughout the book.

There’s a philosophical undercurrent to Scudder’s investigation. Much of the novel is about negation and absence. Scudder is not hired to find the murderer, but to clear those who are innocent off a list. Similarly, he is told that his first year in AA is not about making change—it’s about not making any changes to his life, at least until that first year is up. As he is also told, it isn’t the 12-step program that keeps him sober—not drinking does. And even if something isn’t there anymore—be it booze, a loved one, an enemy, a friend, or a total stranger—its absence can still effect a powerful presence. Cultural and personal memory is like that, sometimes, and the past is never completely gone.

The other philosophical aspect to the book is the question of fate, and of our power to enact change in our own lives or in others. Scudder frequently asks himself, “Did everything always work out the way it was supposed to?” A character half-jokingly tells Scudder, “I have a choice. But have I got a choice what choice I make?” The whole premise of the story is based around this idea: could Scudder have become a criminal even if he wanted to? Implicit in this inquiry is the fate of his future: can he stay off the booze and get his life back on track?

Nostalgic but never sentimental, A Drop of the Hard Stuff is a trip down all of memory’s lanes—the good, the bad, the regretful, the fond. Echoing the changes in Scudder’s personal life is the incessant metamorphosis of New York City, which changes in front of one’s eyes before they’ve even noticed. Restaurants and bars come and go, people move to new neighborhoods, they change partners, their personalities evolve…and sometimes they don’t, as Scudder discovers. Some things never changes, and some people stay the same all along. A pothead he meets has been stuck in his 20s for over twenty years. And a killer is always a killer.

A Drop of the Hard Stuff is as rich and rewarding as it is devastating—and I mean that in the best way possible. If you haven’t read any of the Scudder books yet, this might be the perfect way to introduce yourself to one of crime fiction’s most enduring characters.

A Drop of the Hard Stuff is available May 12 from Mulholland Books.

Here are some of my favorite lines from the book:

“What did I ever do that was good? Well, St. Peter, once time I could have stolen the gold from a dead whore’s ears. But I restrained myself.”

“You don’t die all at once. Not anymore. These days you die a little at a time.”

“My impression,” I said, “was he wasn’t the type to kill himself.” “Everybody’s the type,” he said. “The miracle is there’s so many of us who never get around to it.”

“…a voice like thirty miles of bad road…”

“Be careful what you say, because people are going to change the words around on you, and go on quoting them long after you stop believing them yourself.”

Monday, March 14, 2011

Triple Pulp Attack: Beat to a Pulp, Crime Factory, and Mulholland Books Updates

There's more crime fiction hitting the web than you can shake a stick (or insert weapon of choice) at these days! Here are three of the things I am most excited about:

1) Cindy Rosmus, editor of Yellow Mama, is over at Beat to a Pulp with "Rent Me." (Speaking of Yellow Mama, somehow I missed their latest February issue, which includes "Chained" by Ian Ayris, and AJ Hayes' "A Moon Like Tarnished Silver.")

2) KUNG FU FACTORY! The exclamation point is all mine, and with good reason. The folks over at Crime Factory have assembled one hell of a kung fu themed crime collection, including Christa Faust, Anthony Neil Smith, Duane Swierczynski, Frank Bill, Matthew McBride, Chad Eagleton, Bryon Quartermous, Addam Duke, Chis La Tray, Cameron Ashley, The Nerd of Noir, Garnett Elliot, Liam Jose, Jimmy Callaway, Joshua Reynolds, and Michael S. Chong. This is one ass kicking I'm thankful to receive. Line up, writers, and start kicking, chopping, and nun-chucking.

3) Ken Bruen and Russell Ackerman's "Black Lens" continues over at Mulholland Books. This is one series I'm hoping to sit down and write more about in the coming weeks, but for now here are the links for the first eight installments. Look out for future installments at Mulholland Books every Wednesday. Hump day just got a little more noir-er -- is that even a word? "Noir-er?" Who cares, as long as Bruen and Ackerman are there on the web.
Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7, Part 8

Friday, March 11, 2011

"The Dead Man: Face of Evil" by Lee Goldberg and William Rabkin

With The Dead Man: Face of Evil, Lee Goldberg and William Rabkin have inaugurated what looks to be a promising new genre-bending series of novellas. This first entry introduces us to Matthew Cahill, a lumberjack whose life seems pretty stable—he has a good job, his childhood friend Andy still acts like a buffoon, and his colleague Rachel has been flirting with him (but he still misses his wife). But after a skiing accident, Cahill’s life takes a nightmarish turn, and now he’s questioning everything he sees. Are those rotting corpses he sees walking amidst the living? Cahill doesn’t know what is going on, or who he can trust.

Like any good cliffhanger serial should, Face of Evil smartly hooks readers with a number of mysterious elements that remain unsettled at the end of this first adventure. I, for one, am already anticipating the next entry in the series, Hell in Heaven (also penned by Goldberg and Rabkin).

If you check out The Dead Man blog, Lee Goldberg gives the backstory of the series, which began as a television pitch. This episodic structure seems to have influenced the novels, as Face of Evil reads much like a pilot episode. It offers plenty in the way of atmosphere, suspense, and action, but little in the way of answers, which is why you have to tune in for the next episode.

So, what makes me want to check back for the next installment? Matt Cahill, for one. The book begins with a stable character, one described as “a practical man, not one for pondering the philosophical meaning of things. He took events as they came.” The book ends a man who is now questioning everything around him, even his own perceptions. He’s still pragmatic, something every action hero should be (to some extent). Cahill’s character is just beginning to evolve, and I’d like to see where Goldberg, Rabkin & Co. are going to take him.

There’s also a good amount of humor in the book. When Matt gets overwhelmed by the nightmare spinning around him, Matt’s instinct is that “he needed to chop some wood.” And as soon as he gets out of the hospital, regardless of how screwed up everything is, he still wants his two hotdogs. Humor is an organic part of his character—a sign of his pragmatism—but it’s also a clever counterpoint to the supernatural craziness that is only just beginning to build. Also, I am hoping that soon Matt’s axe skills will be used on something other than logs.

A third reason that I’m looking ahead to the other books is the lineup of authors in store for the future. More of Goldberg and Rabkin, plus James Reasoner, Bill Crider, Mel Odom, Matthew P. Mayo, Harry Shannon, Marcus Pelegrimas, David McAfee, Joel Goldman, James L. Daniels, Burl Barer, and Matt Witten. That’s one hell of a lineup in store for The Dead Man, and I’m looking forward to seeing what sort of hell they can drag Matt Cahill through. These writers span any number of genres—horror, crime, mystery, western, and more—so I am curious to see how this diversity will affect the evolution of The Dead Man series.

Purchase The Dead Man: Face of Evil here, or visit The Dead Man Blog for more info.
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