Saturday, April 30, 2011

Crime Fiction is Everywhere This Week!

Too much great crime fiction articles and interviews on the net this week! Time to catch up over the weekend.

--Two of my favorite novelists, Reed Farrel Coleman and Daniel Woodrell, go mano a mano over at Mulholland Books. Part 1 and Part 2.

--Speaking of Woodrell, have you checked out Jed Ayres' interview with the author yet?

--Over at The Los Angeles Review of Books, Megan Abbott reviews Robert Crais' The Sentry: A Joe Pike Novel.

--Also at LARB, Richard Schickel reviews Stefan Kanfer Tough Without a Gun: The Life and Extraordinary Afterlife of Humphrey Bogart.

--Paul D. Brazill interviews Gordon Harries about his upcoming writing projects and the future of Needle Scratch Static.

--Over at Needle Scratch Static, Harries talks Robert B. Parker, Ace Atkins, and Spenser.

--Bill Crider writes about Private Eyes and Westerns.

--Jake Hinkson has two pieces of great interest over at Criminal Element: "Spenser: A Look Back at Robert Parker" and "Memento and Amnesia Noir."

--Oh yeah, you check out the latest Plots With Guns? No? Then why are you reading this!

Friday, April 29, 2011

"The Dinosaur Club" by William Heffernan (William Morrow & Co, 1997)

Abandon all hope all ye who enter corporate America...or so it seems to Jack Fallon when rumors of downsizing and layoffs start to spread. As the 49-year-old Vice President of Sales for Waters Cable Corporation, he knows that he and other people in his age bracket are the targets of downsizing. But with his personal life falling apart, his wife leaving him for a wealthy dentist, his kids blaming him for the separation, and his mother’s incessant nagging, Fallon decides to strike back. With the aid of his fellow middle-aged colleagues, Fallon forms “The Dinosaur Club,” a covert group that sets out to terrorize the top brass at Waters Cable Corporation. Even if they go down, they’ll go down fighting.

William Heffernan's The Dinosaur Club was published in 1997, but its prescient story could easily apply to the contemporary economy and the financial worries that many are still facing today. It is about workers who are afraid of losing their jobs, and the greater fear of what life will be like when they have to start over. Heffernan also blends comedy with darker elements of revenge fantasy and mid-life crisis. We cheer on as Fallon and co. make their own investigations into fraud and other illegal activities going on behind-closed-doors, and especially as they figure out the perfect poetic justice to deliver to the ruthless, cocky executive Carter Bennett who is behind the layoffs.

But if we laugh along side them, we’re also never sure if The Dinosaur Club will succeed. The troubles they go through are real, and the pressures felt ones that many can relate to. How to pay for their kids’ university tuitions and nursing home fees for their parents, and how to sustain a marriage frayed by work stress that followed them home from the office. It is joyful to watch Fallon flirt with the younger, attractive company lawyer Samantha Moore, but we can’t help but wonder if this is just part of a mid-life crisis, and will it too just come to pass?

If there is anything positive about Fallon’s turmoil, it's that it woke up him from a mindless existence of routine. He lost control of his life long ago and became what others expected of him. Fallon's realization offers a hint of optimism amidst what would otherwise be a dour, hopeless situation. I appreciate that Heffernan sees the possibility of a light at the end of a tunnel. Who knows how long that tunnel may be, but such hope from a socially perceptive writer such as Heffernan is certainly encouraging.

Here is one of my favorite passages from the book, which captures Heffernan’s outrage at the ruthlessness of corporate America:

“I see them laying off hundreds, thousands of people, and I wonder what the hell is going on in their minds. Isn’t anyone saying: Hey, wait a minute, if we all do this, who the hell is going to buy our TV sets and our cars and our toasters? Where’s our talent pool going to come from when all those families can’t afford to send their kids to college anymore? What’s going to happen to our economy when those kids grow up and are never able to buy a house? And you know what’s even sicker? Nobody’s asking those questions. Not even guys like me.”

Thursday, April 28, 2011

The New York Review of Books April 28, 2011

The latest issue of The New York Review of Books (April 28, 2011) has several articles that caught my eye.

--Geoffrey O'Brien reviews Iphigenia in Forest Hills: Anatomy of a Murder Trial by Janet Malcolm. A true crime book about the trial of Mazoltuv Borukhova, who hired Mikhail Mallayev to murder her husband, Daniel Malakov in 2007. What I liked about O'Brien's review is that he pays attention to not only Malcolm's reportage, but the way that she analyzes the real-life courtroom drama in an almost literary manner.
"The truth is messy, incoherent, aimless, boring, absurd," Malcolm has written elsewhere. "The truth does not make a good story; that's why we have art." The paradox of Malcolm's writing is that all her art is deployed to reveal the seams and interstices of the art-making process, to lay bare the details fudged or blurred or condensed, the inconvenient incongruities and confusions regularized or omitted, the bias by which certain details are foregrounded and others tossed aside.
--"Killing Orson Welles at Midnight" by Zadie Smith is a review of Christian Marclay's film The Clock. A 24-hour museum installation piece, The Clock reconstructs an entire day solely from moments from existing movies that feature clocks. I like how Zadie Smith deconstructs the subtle role of editing in movies and its relationship to the passing of time, something that often goes overlooked in most film reviews.
The Clock makes you realize how finely attuned you are to the rhythms of commercial (usually American) film. Each foreign clip is spotted at once, long before the actor opens his mouth. And it’s not the film stock or even the mustaches that give the game away, it’s the variant manipulation of time, primarily its slowness, although of course this “slowness” is only the pace of real time. In commercial film, decades pass in a minute, or a day lasts two and half hours....A parsing of the common enough phrase “I don’t like foreign movies” might be “I don’t want to sit in a cinema and feel time pass.”
--Joyce Carol Oates reviews James Ellroy's The Hilliker Curse: My Pursuit of Women. What a pleasure it was to read this review. Oates is a rare talent. Brilliant novelist, short story writer, and critic. I haven't read her recent memoir about the passing of her husband, but I'm sure that is also terrific. She fearlessly engages with Ellroy's style, his ego, and his own self-constructed mythology. She's not afraid to call him out when she feels he is being repetitive, narcissistic, or inaccessible to readers not already familiar with the World According to Ellroy; but she's an insightful enough reader to recognize the personal depths of The Hilliker Curse, Ellroy's trail-trailblazing original style, and his ability to transmit his own fevered passions and obsessions through the page.

--Edward Mendelson reviews Saul Bellow: Letters edited by Benjamin Taylor. Mendelson compares and contrasts excerpts from Bellow's published novels with his personal letters to show how deeply personal his work was. I only know Bellow from reputation and am not familiar with his work, so reading this review was rather confusing. I have a few Bellow novels back in Maine at my folks' place; the next time I visit I will have to take one off the shelf and take a gander.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

"The Follower" by Jason Starr (Minotaur, 2007)

The Follower shows why Jason Starr is one of the great contemporary writers of New York City. He has an instinctive feel for the city’s pulse, its labyrinthine layout, and the neuroses and delusions of its inhabitants. Books like Panic Attack, Fake I.D. and the graphic novel The Chill chart the geographic diversity of New York and instinctively locate the natural terror inherent in every city block. In The Follower, Starr seizes upon the emotional torment of a young woman and communicates to the reader the fear of feeling alone and vulnerable while being surrounded by millions of people—each of whom contain the potential for unrealized terror.

One of the great ironies of New York City is that, despite being a big city, sometimes it feels as intimate—or claustrophobic—as a small town. Especially Manhattan. The skyscrapers and apartment complexes may tower higher and higher into the sky, but the size of the island remains the same. With such a dense concentration of people, it’s not uncommon to run into someone you know on the street, at the corner bodega, or at the gym.

Or so Katie Porter thinks when she sees Peter Wells at her gym. In fact, she’s strangely comforted by seeing someone from her hometown of Lenox, MA. Things aren’t going well with her boyfriend Andy, and she needs someone to talk with. Peter seems so caring, so sensitive, so attentive. But soon, all this attention starts to seem creepy and their meeting at the gym too convenient, as if it were planned. Paranoia takes over as Katie is convinced that someone is following all over the city, and Manhattan’s grid-like network becomes as entrapping as a rat’s maze.

Starr’s gifted ability to blend absolute panic with razor sharp humor is on full display in The Follower. More than just a suspense story, it’s also a satire on the New York singles scene, with twenty-something post-grads bar hopping and drunkenly flirting with anything on two legs. Starr shifts perspectives between his three main characters—Peter, Katie, and Andy—and the contrast of their unique perceptions is frequently funny. There’s also a hubristic arrogance to Peter’s observations that seems to embody noir’s dark humor: “Killing people and getting away with it was so easy. You had to be a total moron to get caught.”

Starr writes of the optimism of losers. Peter’s recurring hopefulness—“Everything could work out perfectly” and “But he reminded himself that this was only the beginning”—belie the hopelessness of their missions. Starr’s protagonists frequently mix the defeatism of David Goodis with the psychopathy of Jim Thompson. Like the down-and-out bartender Tommy Russo in Fake I.D., Peter Wells is a model of this noir mixture of someone too delusional to realize how depressed they are. If he weren’t so goddamned homicidal he’d probably be suicidal. Unlike the debt-ridden Tommy, Peter has money to burn, time to lose, and dreams to realize—dreams which quickly turn into nightmares of repressed desire and frustrated failure.

If Peter were just an obsessive stalker, he would be a one-dimensional character. Starr, however, adds an innovative twist to Peter’s personality. As part of his job at the gym, Peter has to go out onto the street like a barker and sell gym memberships to passersby. For a sociopath that can’t connect with people without stalking or killing them, Peter is ironically great at relating with people on a superficial level. As his boss tells him, “You know how to relate, know what I’m saying? Even some stranger on the street—man, woman, it doesn’t matter. They like you right away, and when they like you they trust you. That’s the whole key with sales.” There’s a Highsmithian duplicity to Peter Wells, a chameleon-like capacity for changing his personality, only Peter isn’t as diabolically clever as Mr. Ripley—Peter’s not a genius, his plans frequently fail, and there’s something very ordinary about him, which makes his character all the more frightening. There’s only one Ripley, but Starr gives the impression that there could be any number of Peter Wells out there.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Catching up with Greg Shepard and Stark House Press

Greg Shepard is like a literary archeologist, digging into depths of forgotten fiction and unearthing bookish treasures. Through Stark House Press, Greg shares his discoveries with readers around the world. Classic crime fiction is the Stark House forte, but they’re not afraid to branch out to sci-fi, fantasy, film scholarship, or original novels, as long as they’re well written. Stark House has superb taste. If you see their logo, you can bet it’s going to be well worth reading.

Back in Fall 2009, I interviewed Greg about the start of Stark House, as well as the Harry Whittington trio that had just come out. Almost two years later, Stark House is still going strong. 2011 has already seen the release of Peter Rabe’s The Silent Wall / The Return of Marvin Palaver and a collection of rarities by Don Elliott (an early pseudonym of Robert Silverberg), and there is more Day Keene, Harry Whittington, and Orrie Hitt to come. Greg was kind enough to answer a few more questions for Pulp Serenade about the recent Elliott/Silverberg publication, as well as what Stark House has in store for readers.

Pulp Serenade: How and when did you first encounter Nightstand/Midwood paperbacks?

Greg Shepard: As a collector, I’ve been aware of Nightstand/Midwood for a while. I’ve acquired a few of their books over the years, including some of the Elliotts. I never sought them out as such, but I’ve certainly been intrigued by them as publishing’s forbidden fruit for at least 25 years.

PS: What was it like working with the great Robert Silverberg?

GS: Bob is a pleasure to work with. There isn’t much else that needs to be said. He is one of the great gentlemen of the publishing world. And I hope to work with him again.

PS: Was it difficult to convince Silverberg to reprint these? Did he have any reservations?

GS: Curiously, I had contacted Bob about 3-4 years ago about reprinting some of the Elliott books, but he wasn’t interested. Polite but firm. Then out of the blue, he contacted me a year ago and asked if I were still interested. If he had any reservations, it was about how to market the books. He didn’t feel that he wanted the Silverberg name on the books as in “ROBERT SILVERBERG WRITING AS DON ELLIOTT.” He has a keen sense of his audience and didn’t want to confuse the sf readers with his erotica writings. Nor did he want them marketed as “Sleaze Classics” as many of these books are known today. He feels, quite rightly, that the books stand on their own, and that there is nothing inherently sleazy about them. So once we worked out the parameters, the project went very smoothly.

PS: Why Gang Girl and Sex Bum? Were there other titles you considered?

GS: Bob picked out the titles. Considering how many books he’s written as Elliott, not to mention his other adult pseudonyms, I thought I’d bow to his greater knowledge in this case. Once I read them, Gang Girl appealed to me because it was one of the first Elliotts, and Sex Bum because of its obvious crime angle. I’m not sure if there’s a perfect way to pick two titles out of 150 and come up with the ideal selection, so going with Bob’s choices seemed a good way to start.

PS: Did you hear from Earl Kemp (who originally published the Elliott books) at all while you were working on this reprint? If so, did he have anything to say about seeing these works in print again?

GS: Didn’t hear from Earl. I’d love to hear what he thinks about the reprints.

PS: What is the total amount of time it takes to put something like this Don Elliott anthology together, from conception to seeing the final bound product?

GS: That’s an interesting question. In this case, it took almost exactly a year between Bob’s initial email and the publishing of the book. It doesn’t have to take that long due to production, but because Stark House is only publishing four books a year, I have a schedule that is always at least two+ years out. I slotted the Elliott book in as soon as I could once the contract was signed, but if I were publishing more books a year, I probably could have had it out in less time--8-10 months easily. And if it ever becomes possible to publish Stark House full time, I probably will have the books out sooner.

PS: These two books were reprinted over fifty years ago. Do you think anyone involved thought they would be around today?

GS: Man, I seriously doubt it. I never asked Bob, but at the rate he was cranking them out back then, I can’t imagine he thought these books were going to have another shelf life 50 years on. I wouldn’t have.

PS: What is it about them that makes them still interest readers today?

GS: Bob Silverberg is just basically a great storyteller. You get caught up in his books. I recently re-read The World Inside. Completely different experience from the Elliott books. In the case of the Elliott books, story predominates. In the case of World Inside, theme is more important. But in both cases, the characters matter and the story propels you on. Gang Girl is the story of a woman who tries to manipulate her way into leadership of a gang. Sex Bum is about a guy who wants to be head of the mob. They both want power. They reach for it and fail. But in their reaching for it, they touch upon that basic instinct in us all to better ourselves, to strive, to achieve. I think they both have stories that are pertinent to today for the simple reason that they both involve the conflict between not having and wanting. It doesn’t get much more basic than that.

PS: And now for a couple questions about some upcoming Stark House Releases…You are working again with David Laurence Wilson on two collections: one of Day Keene and one of Harry Whittington. They both have so many great books out of print, how did you decide on these three?

GS: You can blame the Day Keene collection on me. I read a bunch of Keene books, and picked my three favorites. I’m not saying that there aren’t better Keene books—David is a big fan of Joy House, for example--just that these were my three picks from the books I read at the time. As for the Whittington collection, David and I discussed this back when we did the last Whittington book. I particularly like Rapture Alley and Strictly for the Boys, two of Harry’s social novels. David thought they’d work well with A Taste of Desire, one of the “lost” novels he wrote about earlier. So we put them together in one volume, another 3-in-1.

PS: I also see you have an Orrie Hitt collection coming up later this year. What can you tell us about the two novels that you are reprinting?

GS: The Cheaters is one of Orrie’s best noir novels, with a great crooked cop antagonist pitted against a guy who just wants to manage his bar while having his way with the previous owner’s wife. Dial M for Man has the distinction of having a TV repairman as noir hero Hitt’s characters are a bit larger than life, but they’re a lot of fun to read. I have no idea how well these books will do, but I’ve enjoyed working with Orrie’s daughters and some of the Hitt fans like Brian Ritt and Michael Hemmingson to produce the book.

PS: Lastly, does Stark House have any plans to offer ebooks in addition to print volumes in the future?

GS: I don't want to say anything against progress, but I'm not much interested in ebooks personally, and have a hard time getting excited about offering Stark House Books in this format generally. I could change my mind. It's not inconceivable. But at present, I don't have any plans to create an ebook line.

PS: Thank you very much for your time, Greg. It’s always a pleasure to have you at Pulp Serenade.

Jed Ayres Interviews Daniel Woodrell

Jed Ayres cornered Daniel Woodrell and made him spill the beans over at Ransom Notes. Head on over there for the full interview.
Jed Ayres: Does it bother you any that the "country noir" a label that stuck to you for better or worse and which has been popularized largely through you, is being taken up by young writers, perhaps untested, whose point of view is perhaps un-earned?

Daniel Woodrell: Country noir was not a term I expected to survive long and become attached to me forever. There is no point in my wishing it was gone, since it won't be anytime soon. Younger writers should grab onto anything that gives them a foundation, or sense of what they are trying to do, and if the term is congenial to them, have at it. The worrying aspect of said label is that you may feel that whatever you write needs to fit the term, and thereby limit your own investigation of other things that interest you in order to continue being the writer that the label says you are. Remember that with any luck, life is long, and you might want to change your hat someday, and perhaps on many days.
Woodrell's The Bayou Trilogy comes out two days from now from Mulholland Books. (Pulp Serenade Review here)

Monday, April 25, 2011

"The Lineup #4" (Poetic Justice Press, 2011)

It's a great pleasure to see that The Lineup is now in its fourth installment and showing no signs of slowing down (and they are accepting submissions for The Lineup #5 until July 31). The first volume appeared in 2008, and it has since become an annual tradition. Beyond the high quality of the individual poems published by The Lineup, it is this "tradition" that is its greatest accomplishment. Gerald So and his partners in crime poetry are not only making an annual event to look forward to, but also foster a movement and forging a community where there was none before (at least none that I knew of). One of the great parts of this community is the diversity of voices and its overall inclusivity. Up-and-comers and established authors appear side-by-side.

Over the past couple of years, the publishing industry has been upended (and the chaos isn't over yet), but one thing the crime fiction community has going for it is that it sticks together, and The Lineup is further proof of that. It's also proof that the crime fiction community takes chances. Crime and poetry--for a whole book? 4 volumes worth? And a fifth in the works? Yes, yes, and YES!

Co-editor Reed Farrel Coleman's introduction explains why poetry and crime go hand-in-hand.
"The marriage of crime and poetry makes perfect sense. Poetry has its roots in heightened emotion, in crystal clarity. Poetry has always been about life’s lines and edges, the tensions between love and hate, ugliness and beauty, exaltation and despair. The poet’s job has always been to focus the laser, to distill, to sharpen, to filter and translate for the rest of us. What could be a more natural subject for poetry than crime and what could be a greater challenge?"
26 writers accepted this challenge in The Lineup #4. It's the biggest crew yet for The Lineup. 19 appeared in #3, 13 in #2, 14 in #1. I know one shouldn't value quantity over quality, but when the quality is so consistent, who is to complain about a few extra poems? It's also a positive sign to see new voices in each issue. Hopefully The Lineup family will continue to grow with issue #5 in 2012.

All of the poems were a pleasure to read. These five were among my favorites:

--Mary Christine Delea's "Leaving Long Island" crystallizes a moment when you recognize your own vulnerability, when crime hits close to home. "Suddenly not so keen to leave home for college in a month, away from what wasn’t really safe, but felt like it when you needed it to."

--Keith Rawson's "A Story to Tell Our Daughter" is as great as any of his short stories, and he shows he has the poetry chops to shift mood on the dime between panic, dread, humor, and nostalgia. "One eye on the gun, The other on the road
and kept driving."

--H. Palmer Hall's "Suburban Blues" shows exquisite form, the shape of the poem is itself part of the artfulness. It ends with a beautiful, uneven tail, an evocative image that breaks through the pattern and cements the mood of the poem.

--Laura LeHew's "The Organized Offender" is a museum exhibition-like description of Ted Bundy. There's terror in its objectivity, and it undermines our own distanced fascination with violence, which LeHew hits home with this chilling last line: "The radical separation of form and content, conceals and belies the seriousness and complexity of his art."

--Reed Farrel Coleman's "Slider, Part 7" is a haunting, elegiac look at a mass execution outside Kiev. Coleman's poem is expertly constructed, and its shifting emphasis from human emotions (crying, begging) to inhuman details (bullets, bodies, quicklime) reinforces the horror of the murders, and the passage from being a living being to a still corpse.

The Lineup 4 was edited by Gerald So with Reed Farrel Coleman, Sarah Cortez, and R. Narvaez. For information about purchasing a copy, visit The Lineup's Website.

Here is a list of all the contributors to The Lineup 4.

Ken Bruen, Michael Casey, Reed Farrel Coleman, David Corbett, Mary Agnes Dalrymple, Mary Christine Delea, Jeanne Dickey, H. Palmer Hall, Paul Hostovsky, David Jordan, Laura LeHew, Thomas Michael McDade, Peter Meinke, Keith Rawson, Chad Rohrbacher, Stephen Jay Schwartz, Nancy Scott, Kieran Shea, J.D. Smith, J.J. Steinfeld, John Stickney, Caitlin Elizabeth Thomson, Randall Watson, Charles Harper Webb, Steve Weddle, and Germaine Welch.

"Dope" by Sara Gran

There’s an element of Greek Tragedy in Noir. Fate is unavoidable; the past is inescapable; disguises never fully mask one’s true self; skeletons never stay in the closet; and journeys always reveal that which would have better been left buried. Towards the end of Dope, junkie-turned-amateur-sleuth Josephine Flannigan reflects on some of the unpleasant discoveries of her first case. “Sometimes, if you’ve been unlucky enough to find out the truth, you’re better off forgetting it. Especially when there’s not much you can do with it.” She doesn’t realize how right she is. By the end of the novel, Josephine will have wished that she took her own advice early on.

B-girls and drug addicts are nothing new to noir novels, but Sara Gran’s Dope gives us a rare look at the world of 1950s New York through the eyes of someone who is normally relegated to bit parts and colorful cameos, someone who has seen the best and worst of life but has rarely been allowed to share her vision.

Josephine Flannigan has been many things in her 35 years on this moral coil—and most of them she did in order to get the dope that her veins craved—but one thing she’s never been is a Private Detective. But when two concerned parents offer her $2000 to find their dope addict daughter, Nadine, Josephine thinks it will be a quick and easy buck that will put her life on easy street. She didn’t know how wrong she was.

Dope is populated by castaways who washed up on the island of Manhattan and never found a rescue—except for alcohol and drugs. Like the nine circles of Dante’s Inferno, Josephine’s investigation leads us through a hierarchy of despondency that lies beneath the veneer of New York City. The bars and dance halls get progressively more sordid depending how badly the men need the women and the women need the dope to get through the day. And waiting at the bitter end is a terrifying twist colder than one could imagine.

Sara Gran writes with both force and reserve. There’s nothing romanticized about her portraits of the slums, seedy bars and drug dens of post-WWII New York. They’re desolate and full of despairing people whose problems are bigger than they, or society, know how to deal with. Her characters aren’t standard types but living, breathing, hurting – and craving – individuals. With each new person Josephine encounters, there’s the intimation of a whole other story just waiting to be told and for someone to listen. And that’s what makes Josephine such an insightful (and much needed) narrator: her life experiences have conditioned her to know where to look, who to listen to and, most importantly, what to listen for. “That’s why you start, and that’s why you stick with it, so you can finally be someone: a junkie.” Where others see junkie stereotype, Josephine sees the ghost of what was and what will never be again.

Friday, April 22, 2011

W.C. Fields Remembered

Over at AltScreen, I have an essay on one of my heroes, the great W.C. Fields: "The Con-Man Philosopher and The Everyday Sucker: W.C. Fields' Cheat-or-Be-Cheated Comic Persona."

Here's an excerpt:
Fields was many things on-screen—a proselytizing misanthrope, a skilled raconteur, an embittered husband, a frequent imbiber, and a kicker of children and small dogs. He was also the rare honestly crooked man in a crookedly honest world. The essence of Fields’ persona can be divided into two main types that are related like opposite sides of the same coin. He is both cinema’s most crushable charlatan and the working class everyman beaten down by life’s mundane frustrations. The two roles are a call and response: Con Man Fields is the yin to Conned Man Fields’ yang. Together they’re like object lessons in how to navigate the modern world. Cheat or be cheated.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

"Cruel Poetry" by Vicki Hendricks (Seprent's Tail, 2007)

Vicki Hendricks’ earlier novels excelled at capturing single protagonists caught in insatiable and increasingly tightening vices. The protagonists of Miami Purity, Iguana Love, Voluntary Madness and Sky Blues all wanted a euphoric kick to jumpstart their dull lives—and they got it tenfold. With open arms, they welcomed sex, thrills, danger, and murder. Hendricks’ fifth novel, the Edgar-nominated Cruel Poetry, stands amongst her most sophisticated and complex works to date. Hendricks has expanded her view to encompass three narrators whose lives, desires, and crimes are intertwined into a thick knot of noir that can’t be undone.

Renata is what she calls a “pleasure enabler.” Residing in the Tropic Moons Hotel on Miami Beach, Renata lives on a steady stream of sex. Some are lovers, some are clients. It seems to make little difference to Renata. Among her clients is Richard, a married poetry professor whose addiction to Renata is jeopardizing his family and career. Next door to Renata is Julie, a young aspiring writer who listens through the wall and writes about what she hears. She, too, develops an obsession with Renata, and will do anything to protect her, even murder. Soon this trio finds themselves dodging cops, private eyes, drug dealers, jealous lovers, and even hungry, man-eating gators.

The plot set-up may sound typical, but once the story is in motion, Hendricks steps away from the beaten path and goes into some very unusual directions. It would be criminal to spoil the twists that Hendricks has in store for readers, but those are even hardly the best parts of the book. As the title indicates, there’s a larger effect at work in Cruel Poetry (a title which, by the way, would befit any of Hendricks’ other novels). The real mystery is how long will they last before their decadence lead them to irreversible self-destruction. It’s not the path that’s so gripping as the people on the path. Hendricks has crafted her richest cast yet, and by expanding the narrative to include three narrators and about a half-dozen strong supporting characters she’s also created her most engrossing and dramatic narrative.

Renata is anything but your ordinary femme fatale. (In fact, I wouldn’t apply this tag to her at all, as she turns out to be the least deadly of the bunch.) Hendricks imbues Renata with an unusual and compelling psychological make-up. Unlike her many companions, Renata does not live for pleasure: she lives to give pleasure. The absence of this key drive (which was crucial to so many of Hendricks’ previous books) takes the character in many surprising directions, and shows how Hendricks continues to push the traditions of noir into new territories and puts her distinctive mark on the genre.

From the very start of Cruel Poetry, Renata tells both Julie and Richard, “I’m a bad influence. I don’t love anybody.” Throughout the novel, she repeats this sentiment in any number of variations: “I’m not worth it” and “I’ll hurt you. I don’t know how to love anybody, any one person.” Renata is graced with an uncanny self-knowledge that reminds of Gloria Grahame. In movies like The Big Heat and Human Desire, Gloria stands alone in her understanding of how the world works, the path she is on, and how badly she will probably end up. Julie and Richard suffer from a classic case of “noir blindness,” in which the truth is right in front of them the whole time, not that they care to pay attention to it. As Rival Schools sing in their song “Shot After Shot,” “Love doesn't know anything / Only believes when it believes / Our thoughts don't know anything.” Julie and Richard’s quest for love leads to oblivion and obliteration. They want control not companionship, and their fantasies are defined by prisons rather than pleasures. They each only see themselves and Renata: there is nothing beyond the two of them. (This should be a clear indication that their dreams could never be realized. Chalk it up again to “noir blindness” that this lack of any rational future doesn’t ring any warning bells for anyone except for Renata.)

There’s something tragic about Renata’s honesty—she never deceives anybody, and yet nearly every character in the book tries to manipulate her in one way or another: through love, sex, murder, blackmail, promises of grandeur that could never be fulfilled. This makes Renata’s devotion to her “intimates” all the more sincere and, in a way, pathological. In a world as corrupt and duplicitous as noir, Renata is a rare symbol of virtue, a perfect embodiment of that contradictory “Miami Purity” (to allude to Hendricks’ earlier novel).

Julie and Richard—along with their predecessors in Miami Purity, Iguana Love and Sky Blues—are dreamers. They may also be delusional, self-centered, and unrealistic. Ok, yes, they’re all of those things, but they’re also driven by very normal desires of fulfillment, excitement, and companionship (sometimes love, sometimes just sex). Renata, on the other hand, is not a dreamer. She lives permanently in the now. Her talent for pleasure can be partially explained by this focused concentration on each individual moment, living it to the fullest without fear of consequence. She’s a pragmatist, and therefore the only one of her bunch capable of dealing with the problems that they put forth upon her. A dead body? She knows what to do. Pissed off drug dealers wanting more money? No problem. No money to give them? Even less of a problem. It’s no wonder that Julie and Richard are dependent on Renata. Though they both long to take her away and care for her like a lost child, more often than not they are the ones in need of Renata’s parenting. And as someone professionally skilled in both comfort and discipline, Renata can play the parts of both mother and father.

Renata’s absence of dreams, however, is a double-edged sword There’s a nihilistic impulse to her actions, an admission that her choices are ultimately meaningless and that tomorrow isn’t worth living for—only today is. We also see this same desire for oblivion in the skydiving of Sky Blues and the scuba diving of Iguana Love. In those previous books, the characters achieved it through complete sublimation into sensation—the ripping wind of a freefall, the liquid touch of the water. Cruel Poetry is Hendricks’ most bodily narrative yet. She’s never shied away from eroticism in her work, but in Cruel Poetry there’s something unusually intense about physical contact, even when they have their clothes on. (Renata’s are usually off, but Julie is rather reluctant to act on her feelings and jump out of her pants.)

Hendricks has been compared with James M. Cain, particularly his novel The Postman Always Rings Twice with its doomed trajectory from desire to death. At first glance, Renata’s declaration, “We’ll figure something out. We’re together in this,” reminds of the iconic line from Double Indemnity: “Straight down the line.” A closer examination, however, shows the dialogue to be quite different. Hendricks is able to innovatively rework noir traditions into something very much her own. There’s something selfish and self-destructive about the lovers of Double Indemnity: if one is going down, so is the other. On the contrary, there is something decidedly selfless about Renata. She’s right that she doesn’t love anyone, but she’s one of the most faithful and giving characters I’ve encountered in noir. She doesn’t bring down those around her; she holds them up while they try to drag her down. Her strength, acumen, and insight into human weakness (even her own), is to be admired. With Renata, Hendricks has crafted an original and haunting character that defies stereotype and breaks the mould.

Cruel Poetry unfolds in a rapturous haze of pleasure and paranoia. This sordid Miami noir is infectious, delirious, and totally gripping.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Julian Barnes on Joyce Carol Oates and "The Psycho-Chaos of Grief"

In the April 7 edition of The New York Review of Books, Julian Barnes has a terrific review of Joyce Carol Oates' A Widow's Story: A Memoir. I haven't read Oates' book yet, but I still found Barnes' review very interesting to read. He compares Oates' book (which is about dealing with the aftermath of her husband's passing) with another writer's attempt to channel grief through language, Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking.

There was one particular passage in the review that stopped me in my tracks:
Oates is novelistic and expansive, switching between first and third persons, seeking (not with unfailing success) to objectify herself as “the widow”; and though she occasionally reaches for the handholds of Pascal, Nietzsche, Emily Dickinson, Richard Crashaw, and William Carlos Williams, she is mainly focused on the dark interiors, the psycho-chaos of grief.
I love that description, "...dark interiors, the psycho-chaos of grief." It not only has a great ring to it, but it also captures the psychological aspect of grief as well as its ability to turn psychotic and chaotic, at times.

Read the full review here:

Sunday, April 10, 2011

"Sky Blues" by Vicki Hendricks (Minotaur, 2002)

Vicki Hendricks' novels are best expressed as the counterpoint between Florida’s wildlife and Florida’s wild life. Sky Blues, her fourth novel, continues to explore some of the recurring motifs that distinguished her earlier novels: the exoticism of nature and the euphoria of extreme sports (Iguana Love), lovers on the run (Voluntary Madness), and characters with a near-nihilistic sexual appetite (Miami Purity). Hendricks’ novels are as recognizable for their themes as they are for her style, which is deeply invested in her characters’ foxtrot of ecstasy and paranoia. She intuitively captures their increasing dependence on sensation and rapture, and its overwhelming and all-consuming effect on their lives. They walk a doomed path from the start, but Hendricks fills it with thrilling distractions and exciting detours. As Destiny Donne, the protagonist of Sky Blues, says, “It’s the fear of death that makes life so acute—charged and meaningful. It’s not a comfortable feeling, but I want to keep it.” For Hendricks’ characters, death (metaphoric or literal) is inevitable, but they have a hell of a time living it up along the way.

Destiny Donne is a vet in Pahokee, Florida for the local nature preserve. She administers treatment to lions and giraffes but, like the animals she oversees, she is caged off from the outside world. Life is boring, the locals are dull, and the men aren’t attractive. And then skydiving instructor Tom Jenks walked through her office door with a lion cub under his arm. A handsome man and an injured animal—the two things she’s always wanted. “This guy’s a six-foot blond in a long-sleeved cotton shirt and nice soft-fitting jeans. He’s got a chiseled face, a jaw so smooth, I want to stroke it.”

For the moment, at least, Destiny isn’t so deluded about who her charmer is. Her initial observation is, “A shame. So drop-dead gorgeous and a goddamned animal abuser.” On their first date, she remarks, “No matter how corny or superficial the action, just the physical presence of his walking behind me gives me pleasure I haven’t much allowed myself. It’s a short road from there to trouble. I feel it.” From the start, Destiny recognizes where their relationship is headed and the violence and manipulation that Tom is capable of—so why does she stick around to the bitter, disastrous end? It’s a rhetorical question that runs throughout the history of noir: how and why does a character devise their own downfall? What forces lead Destiny from a droll existence as a vet to someone who is diving out of airplanes, dodging murder attempts from a jealous ex-wife, and making her own plans for cold-blooded murder—all in the name of a blond stud who fulfills her sexual appetite and turns her simple life into a treacherous train wreck? Walking this path alongside Destiny is the reader’s prerogative, and making it believable and compelling is the author’s responsibility.

It comes no surprise that Hendricks’ delivers credible, sympathetic noir tragedy in spades with Sky Blues. She nails the inner-life of Destiny, the exponential cravings for sex and danger that obscure her judgment and threatens her life while, at the same time, giving it more meaning than she’s ever known before. Much like the scuba diving in Iguana Love, Hendricks renders the skydiving sequence in such precise mechanical detail and explicit sensation of which only a veteran of the sport would be capable. If you’ve any doubt of this first-hand experience, just turn to the back flap of the dust jacket and view Hendricks’ photo, freefalling and screaming in delight at the camera. Her bio reveals that she has “over 450 dives to her credit.”

Like the scuba diving in Iguana Love, skydiving in Sky Blues offers more than just sport for the characters. It also offers a very regulated community, at once insular but also accepting. “They’re an extreme mixture of ages and types….Anyone can fit in here.” Later, Destiny notes that, “I’ve noticed how unusually nice and considerate skydivers are, and I think it’s because they’re always prepared to die. When life is perceived as short, pettiness is useless and unnecessary. Everybody is connected in spirit.” Skydiving is also a microcosm for the cycle of life and death; but, unlike her real life, skydiving is defined by strict rules, procedures, and natural law. Even when Destiny thinks Tom’s ex-wife is trying to kill her, she can still remark, “Gravity is much more predictable than this woman I’ve never met. I feel safe at the DZ.” Skydiving offers a safe, predictable way to experience life and death: if she follows the protocol, nothing bad will happen. Both diving and sex are described by contrasting purely physical sensation with nihilism. Destiny compares her first sexual encounter with Tom to electricity going through her brain, while her first dive is described as, “It’s a clean, bright blankness, a feeling I never imagined, maybe like death.”

It’s a credit to Hendricks’ clarity as a writer that she can take noir to such a philosophical level without dragging down the pace or compromising the emotional resonance of the characters. Destiny is like many of Hendricks’ cursed protagonists: they all want very normal things, but are incapable of attaining them in any normal fashion. That’s what makes them so compelling, so sympathetic, and so tragic. As Destiny reveals, “I’ve never lived so free of loneliness—with a love of life I never knew existed, despite the threats. I just have to keep my discipline.” For Destiny—just as for Sherri (Miami Purity), Ramona (Iguana Love) and the love triangle of Renata-Jules-and-Richard (Cruel Poetry)—desperation carries her to the extremities of living. And we can thank Hendricks for taking us along for the wild ride.

Sky Blues is another neo-noir winner from Vicki Hendricks. It is available as an eBook from Top Suspense Group.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Fantomas Strikes Again at The New School

As part of The New School's Noir Festival, four scholars gathered together to celebrate the centenary of one of the greatest arch-villains of all-time: Fantomas. He started off terrorizing France in 1911 and continues to appear around the world in a variety of formats: books, tv, movies, comics, animation, paintings. You name it, and Fantomas has probably left his mark on it.

The Fantomas Scholars:
Howard A. Rodman, Luc Sante, Geoffrey O'Brien, and David White

David White (Fantomas in America) started things off with a roughly 45-minute selection of clips from Louis Feuillade's 1914 serialized version film of Fantomas, which was recently restored and released on DVD. After a healthy dose of burglaries, kidnappings, death-defying escapes, explosions, and even someone getting trapped in a church bell (don't ask -- just watch and find out for yourself), White returned to the podium for a comprehensive overview of all things Fantomas. He began with the original serialized novels by Marcel Allain and Pierre Souvestre, their method of splitting the two main detective characters (Juve and Fandor) between the two writers and working independently, as well as how they dictated instead of handwriting the novels. White then followed the trail of the supervillain Fantomas and the relentless pursuit of Juve and Fandor across the 20th century, from movies by Feuillade and Fejos to Mexican comic books to 60s television series and even Turkish remakes. Phew! That Fantomas, he sure gets around.

David White discusses Fantomas' authors, Allain and Souvestre.

Next up was screenwriter and novelist Howard A. Rodman who spoke about the mystique and appeal of Fantomas. Rodman concentrated on the motiveless crimes of Fantomas, which made him all the more impossible to pin-down, and his menace all the more pervasive. Rodman also highlighted the many disguises used by Fantomas, which made it seem as though he could be anyone, including the reader.

Following Rodman was Luc Sante (author of Low Life, as well as a terrific essay on tough guy character actors called "Rogues Gallery"). Sante compared Fantomas to Lex Luthor, and the writing methods of Souvestre and Allain to the automatic writing of the surrealists. He also emphasized the "documentary impulse" of Feuillade's film, which was shot on-location in Paris and Marseilles. He concluded by pointing out how Fantomas appeared shortly before WWI, and then reappeared right before WWII. "The entire 20th century is contained somewhere within the myth of Fantomas," Sante said.

Last was Geoffrey O'Brien, author of the essential book on vintage crime fiction Hardboiled America. O'Brien started out by saying how Feuillade's movies are, in a way, more faithful to the myth of Fantomas than the books themselves. By this, I took it to mean that Feuillade's film was such a perfect adaptation that it began to supersede its source over time. This partly relates back to what Sante was calling "the documentary impulse," but also speaks to the iconic status of the images of the movie, something touched on by all of the speakers. Another point O'Brien made was that Feuillade, while best known for his crime films (Fantomas, Les Vampyres, Tih Minh, Judex), was not primarily a director associated with that genre. He began in historical and mythological topics, and then later comedies with child stars. One can see bits of each of these genres in his crime serials. After his crime period, O'Brien stated that Feuillade primarily made sentimental melodramas. One of O'Brien's points was that this shining creative period for Feuillade was, in some ways, serendipitous, as much a product of chance, luck, and timing as his haphazard entrance to the film world.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

"Iguana Love" by Vicki Hendricks (Serpent's Tail, 1999)

After making her stunning debut with Miami Purity, Vicki Hendricks returned with another jolt of sultry Miami neo-noir, Iguana Love. Originally published by Serpent’s Tail in 1999, Iguana Love follows Ramona Romano, a part-time nurse fed up with her passionless, dead-end marriage and who decides to follow her desires. She kicks her husband out, takes up scuba diving, and begins a series of love affairs. As often happens in the noir universe, Ramona’s drive for self-control soon spins her life completely beyond her control, and she becomes increasingly consumed by sex, danger, and bad, bad men.

Noir protagonists stand on the precipice of self-knowledge. They are only partially aware of what they are doing, only semi-conscious of their self-destruction. Noir blindness is like an element right out of Greek Tragedy: it’s something the characters can’t help but do to themselves. Ramona doesn’t know how right she is when she says to her husband at the start of the novel, “I’m the problem…It’s all inside of me.” Much of Iguana Love is structured around Ramona actualizing what is “inside” of her, and making those proverbial dreams come true. She exchanges a boring sex life with Gary for an increasingly complicated power struggle between four hunks of sea-diving beefcake: Dennis, her sweet natured diving partner; Rory, her personal trainer; and her two diving instructors, Charlie and Enzo. Dennis, Rory, and Charlie are more than willing to give Ramona what she wants. Only Enzo plays hard to get: he stands her up; leaves violent, drunken, jealous phone messages; and teases without satisfying her. Naturally, Enzo is the only object of her desire.

Hendricks has a gift for thoroughly describing physical details without falling into the trap of tedious exposition. Her phrases have the precision of a technical drawing, the redolence of a photograph, and an emotion connection that can come only from experience. Hendricks lives in Florida and is an experienced diver, and her first-hand knowledge shines through in Iguana Love. She writes about shopping for diving paraphernalia with an addict’s anticipation and exuberance; and diving expeditions are as sensual as they are suspenseful, fully aware as she is about the dangers and pleasures of the sport. The particularities of Florida’s environment and activities are distinguishing, recurring facets of Hendricks novels and stories. There’s an unusually unerring and evocative sense of place to her work, an authenticity that only adds to the reader’s engagement and identification with the narrative.

Despite what you might think on first glance, Iguana Love isn’t such an obvious or salacious title. The character of the iguana plays a haunting role in the novel. One of Ramona’s friends once had an iguana that would perch on her owner’s shoulders like a mink. When one serendipitously falls into Ramona’s life, she decides to capture it and tame it. Their relationship is fraught with violence, trepidation, obsession and neglect. Animals have a special, privileged, and meaningful place in Hendricks’ world. Their significance is at once literal and metaphoric: they’re objects of repressed affections for characters that have no other outlets, as well as symbols of the natural world, of danger, instinct and sensuality.

Towards the end of Iguana Love, narrator Ramona Romano reflects that, “Life was fucked. Love was fucked.” She could have very easily made that same observation at the start of the novel, but coming at the end of her long adventure it means something different. She’s had so many opportunities to take different paths along the way. “I thought, fuck, if I did have a dick, maybe I wouldn’t be where I was right now. I could choose my own kind of trouble.” Would things have turned out better if she had taken an alternate route, made different choices? As a reminder of the prescience she showed at the start of the novel, Ramona ultimately decides: “My life was completely fucked and there wasn’t anything I could do about it by then.” The true noir protagonist never has any real choice—circumstance, compulsion, and character decides everything for them. Call it fate or call it luck—who knows, maybe it is a little bit of both. Either way, like many noir protagonists before her, Ramona must fight a battle on two fronts: against the world around her, and the world inside her.

Iguana Love has a lot to offer readers. There’s the thrill and adventure of underwater exploration; the sympathetic but doomed ambitions of a desperate protagonist; a great cast of supporting characters; erotic scenes that should make any reader blush but still manage to show creative restraint (as well as a refreshing sense of humor); and an action-packed finale in the open waters of the Bahamas. Iguana Love is real deal neo-noir at its innovative and original best.

Iguana Love is available as an ebook from Top Suspense Group. Be sure to visit Vicki Hendricks’ blog to keep up-to-date with her projects.

Here are some of my favorite quotes from the novel:

“It was obvious that even the simplest bond produced an injury.”

“Rules were fucked.”

“I knew what she was feeling, wanting to be free and not wanting to.”

“Something in me didn’t care, and my brain couldn’t change it.”

“I tried to give up all my wild notions, but it didn’t work. I had seawater on the brain. Divers to explore. Enzo. Flowing freedom. Without a lobotomy, I couldn’t change.”

Noir Poetry, Fiction and Jazz at The New School

As part of The New School's Noir Festival, tonight's offering was an evening of Noir Poetry, Fiction and Jazz.

Noir Poets and Writers of the Evening:
Robert Pinsky, Mary Gaitskill and Robert Pinsky

First up was Robert Polito, author of the superb and monumental Jim Thompson biography Savage Art. Polito began with some selections from Kenneth Fearing, best known for his novel The Big Clock, but who was also an accomplished poet. Polito called Fearing the missing link between William Carlos Williams and Allen Ginsberg and read Fearing's poems "St. Agnes' Eve" and "Angel Arms." Of his own work, Polito read several poems, including the title poem from his collection Hollywood & God, and "Barbara Payton: A Memoir," about the actress' later years spent boozing in a bar after her career crashed and her relationships with Franchot Tone and Tom Neal went to hell.

Polito remarked of his collection, "Hollywood & God is, as most noir is, a book of ghosts." His poem "Sister Elvis," about a female Elvis impersonator, has a great line I couldn't help but jot down: "All my men were cheap, but they were quick." This is the femme fatale's lament, what Gloria Grahame and Barbara Payton's character would say every night. Polito knows noir, and his poetry cuts to the core of its spirit.

Up next was Mary Gaitskill, who read her short story "The Other Place," which was recently featured in The New Yorker. It's a dark tale that skilfully examines the myriad ways that violent impulses reveal themselves in what appears to be a typical middle-class environment. It is as frightening as it is believable, sort of a fusion of Jim Thompson and Flannery O'Connor.
My mom would be in the kitchen making dinner and talking on the phone, stirring and striding around with the phone tucked between her shoulder and her chin. Outside, cars would go by, or a dog would run across the lawn. My homework would be slowly getting done in my lap while this sexy girl was screaming “God help me!” and having her legs torn off. And I would go invisibly into an invisible world that I called “the other place.” Where I sometimes passively watched a killer and other times became one.
Following Gaitskill was Robert Pinsky, the former Poet Laureate of the United States (from 1997-2000). Pinsky was accompanied by a jazz trio: Ben Allison on bass, Frank Kimbrough on piano, and Rudy Royston on bass. It was a terrific way to cap off the evening. The four of them performed very well together, with the music playing off the syncopation of the words, and the poem sinking in to the rhythm of the songs. Pinsky started off with some Baudelaire, then Sterling Brown's "Harlem Happiness," and even a rendition of Robert Frost's "Acquainted with the Night," which lent itself perfectly to the noir atmosphere of the evening.
I have been one acquainted with the night.
I have walked out in rain -- and back in rain.
I have outwalked the furthest city light.

I have looked down the saddest city lane.
I have passed by the watchman on his beat
And dropped my eyes, unwilling to explain.

I have stood still and stopped the sound of feet
When far away an interrupted cry
Came over houses from another street,

But not to call me back or say good-bye;
And further still at an unearthly height,
O luminary clock against the sky

Proclaimed the time was neither wrong nor right.
I have been one acquainted with the night.
Overall it was a terrific night of noir culture. Thanks to The New School for hosting such a wonderful (and free!) event.

The Band: Rudy Royston (drums), Frank Kimbrough (piano), and Ben Allison (bass)

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

"The Drummer" by Anthony Neil Smith (Two Dollar Radio, 2006)

Anthony Neil Smith’s second published novel, The Drummer, is now available as an eBook (both Kindle and Nook). (Print copies are also still available from Two Dollar Radio Press.) But, if you buy the eBook, Smith will donating a portion of the sales to a good cause. As he announced on his blog, "I'm donating the first two weeks royalties to the Martin County (MN) Humane Society, a small organization doing its best to take care of orphaned animals here in Southern Minnesota. And then we'll give $10 per hundred copies sold after that."

It’s hard to contain my enthusiasm for this book. I mean, let’s just take a second to say it out loud: Heavy Metal Noir. Anthony Neil Smith took two of my favorite things and made an awesome genre mutant. The writing is as feral a Slash guitar solo, and the plot as driving as Dave Lombardo’s drumming. Smith has fun exploring and exploiting the excesses of the rock n roll lifestyle, but he never falls into the trappings of outright parody or one-dimensional stereotype. The characters seem more real than the public faces that appear on MTV (or did, when they still showed music videos), and there’s a lot more to the story than the typical rise-and-fall sex-drugs-and-rock-n-roll narrative that has become a cliché.

Calvin Christopher used to be drummer for the 80s hair metal band Savage Night. They lived the rock n roll life to the fullest – until the IRS caught up with them. Cal sees this as the perfect time to get out while the getting’s good. He fakes his death, moves to New Orleans and builds a new identity as “Merle.” Things are going well until Todd—Savage Night’s lead singer—catches up with him. For the second time in his life, Cal sees his whole life about to fall to pieces, and this time he’d do anything to hold on to his life. Anything…and that’s where the trouble begins.

While I was reading the book, some of my favorite 80s metal songs kept playing in my head. Which got me thinking…

What would the ultimate soundtrack to The Drummer sound like?

I’m not sure if these were the songs Anthony Neil Smith necessarily had in mind (or on the stereo) while he was writing, but these were the songs that seemed most fitting to me.

So, without further ado…here is The Pulp Serenade Soundtrack to The Drummer.

1) “Living After Midnight” by Judas Priest – Anthony Neil Smith uses a portion of the lyrics for the novel’s epigram: “Livin’ after midnight, rockin’ ‘til the dawn, lovin’ til the morning, then I’m gone, I’m gone…” It not only suits the plot of the novel and Cal’s disappearance, but also the semi-nihilistic impulse of noir.

2) “Hit the Lights” by Metallica – For those flashbacks when Savage Night is rocking the house. The lyrics do a great job of capturing that metal fever. “No life till leather / We are gonna kick some ass tonight / We got the metal madness / When our fans start screaming / It’s right well alright / When we start to rock / We never want to stop again.”

3) “Mandatory Suicide” by Slayer – The song is about war, but the title seems appropriate considering Cal’s decision to fake his own death. Plus, any excuse to play some Slayer is fine by me.

4) “Goodbye to Romance” by Ozzy Osbourne – So long, Savage Night…suckers! An elegiac power ballad that appropriately says farewell to everything in the rock n roll life that Cal left behind.

5) “Welcome Home (Sanitarium)” by Metallica – The title captures Cal’s anxiety about his new life as “Merle” in New Orleans. It’s as much his home as it is his prison. He can never truly feel at home, since he’s always wondering if someone will track him down.

6) “Out to Get Me” by Guns N Roses – This is every noir protagonist’s theme song, and it’s especially suitable for Cal. This is a live version from GNR’s legendary concert at The Ritz in 1988. It is taken from a television broadcast, so the swears are bleeped out, making this safe for work viewing.

7) “Criminally Insane” by Slayer – How many noir protagonists could we diagnose as criminally insane? Tons. Plus, there’s a line in the song that totally sums up the noir protagonist’s doomed fate perfectly: “The path I chose has led me to my grave / To try again / I'd have no other way.”

8) “Sweet Little Sister” by Skid Row – For those scenes where Cal is seducing the bassist’s younger sister. You know this is what is playing in the back of his mind when they’re on the couch while the parents are out.

9) “Right Next Door to Hell” by Guns N Roses – The opening track to Use Your Illusion 1 is one of GNR’s best and most underrated songs. (Ok, technically the album was released in 1991, but the song was probably written earlier.) This one line seems particularly noir: “But when your innocence dies / You'll find the blues / Seems all our heroes were born to lose.” This song would go well at the end of the novel, when the chaos in Cal’s life reveals its true self. (If I said anymore, I’d spoil the dark surprises that ANS has in store for you.) This video, shot live in Noblesville, Indiana, is especially cool because Izzy Straddlin is still playing with them. He was their original rhythm guitarist, and their strongest songwriter. He left the band shortly after the release of Use Your Illusion 1 and 2, so this is probably one of his last shows with the group.

10) “Jump in the Fire” by Metallica – The decision that every noir protagonist must make. Over and over again. This song could fit so many scenes. When Cal decides to fake his death, when he makes up his mind to do something about Todd. Keep this link handy, because Cal jumps in a lot of fires throughout the course of this novel.

11) “On With the Show” by Motley Crüe – Save this for the last chapter. Trust me. The song’s narrative goes through many moods: at times it is nostalgic, other times naively enthusiastic, at times lamenting. It captures the spirit of Savage Night and the band’s unfortunate (but unavoidable) transformation.

12) “South of Heaven” by Slayer – Cal plays in a band named after a Jim Thompson novel (Savage Night). How can I not include one of the best 80s metal songs that also shares the name of another great Jim Thompson novel (perhaps unintentionally)?

Monday, April 4, 2011

Brian Garfield on Playing Poker with Donald Westlake and Lawrence Block

Imagine a poker game with Brian Garfield, Donald Westlake, Lawrence Block, and occasionally Robert Ludlum. That's one game I'd gladly pay to sit in on! (And I'm sure I would pay--my poker days ended in middle school, and even then I wasn't exactly Orono, Maine's sharpest card shark.)

Head on over to The Chicago Blog (courtesy of the University of Chicago Press) to read the interview with Brian Garfield. And dig those crazy beards!

Here's a little sample:
LTS: First off, why don't you just tell us a bit about your friendship with Donald Westlake. When and where did you meet? Were you friends for a long time?

BG: We met at a poker game in New York, 1965. It was a regular weekly quarter-limit writers' game. Lawrence Block and agent Henry Morrison were regulars. The game was a wonderful source of one-liners—now if only I remembered them. . . .


Our "lit'ry" discussions might have seemed odd to people who weren't writers. For example I remember Don's fascination with the way Ira Levin had cleverly concealed the identity of the killer in A Kiss Before Dying, and we all admired the way Mickey Spillane solved the mystery in Vengeance is Mine in the final word of the novel. I don't know that it's ever been done that way before. Spillane was a comic book-style writer, but we all thought he was much underrated as a storyteller. We didn't talk about his writing style; we talked about his inventiveness. It helps, I suppose, to realize that we all had worked our way up through the pulps—probably the last generation to do that, as the pulps mostly died by the early 1960s. Don and Larry wrote crime stories and softcore porn; I wrote crime stories and Westerns. (They came from the Northeast; I came from the Southwest.) We all had been published since the end of the 1950s. By the mid-60s we'd found a way to do the apprenticeship and make a sort of living out of it, although it wasn't a great living; most of my early books earned somewhere between a few hundred and a thousand dollars. All that meant was we had to write them fast. We thought of the work as fun, challenging but easy to do.

Thanks to Sarah Weinman for the tip!

"The Captain Must Die" by Robert Colby (Gold Medal, 1959)

One of my favorite lines of dialogue from a movie—indeed, one of the most celebrated in all of film history—comes from Jean Renoir’s 1939 masterpiece The Rules of the Game. “The awful thing about life is this: Everyone has his reasons.” Depending on the translation you watch, the wording might be a bit different, but the significance and emotional wallop of the line never diminishes. It’s a sage, subtle piece of wisdom from one of the greatest humanist filmmakers of all time. It doesn’t excuse our foibles, fumbles, or fuckups, nor does it legitimize the terrible things people do, whether deliberate or accidental. The line does, however, cue us in to Renoir’s worldview, which is as attuned to the most lovable and admirable qualities of his characters as it is to the deplorable aspects. As Charles Silver wrote in his outstanding essay on the film, "Renoir is, after all, the most tolerant and humane of all artists, and his central message is a forgiving one: that everyone has his own reasons for his behavior, no matter how foolish or selfish."

Shades of Renoir’s maxim can be found in Robert Colby’s The Captain Must Die. At the end of his rope and with his back against the wall, Brick, one of the novel's main characters, yells out, “We got our reasons.” It’s a last-chance effort to justify the actions of he and his two cohorts. In an act of self-preservation they broke the law. And now they have to pay for it.

Originally published in 1959 by Gold Medal, The Captain Must Die follows three ex-GIs recently released from prison with a lingering vendetta against their former captain. After they track him and his wife to Louisville, the trio plots their bloodthirsty plan to terrorize the captain and get revenge for the 12 years they spent behind bars.

This is one of the most original and most compelling of the Gold Medal books that I’ve read. Colby mixes a superb suspense story with a sophisticated structure that, despite its complexity, reads smoothly and compulsively. Colby fragments the narrative, switching between the perspectives of all five main characters, and moving back-and-forth between time over the course of a few tense days.

By telling the story from multiple viewpoints, Colby accentuates the anxiety, paranoia, and resentment at the heart of each of his characters. They’re burdened by life’s myriad disappointments—loveless relationships, unfaithful spouses, crappy jobs, having to settle for less, and a host of other letdowns and injustices. Even the three GIs, though they are technically a team, can’t trust each other one bit. Everyone—the captain and his wife included—is worn down by resentment and bitterness.

When Robert Colby writes, “You played against trouble, forgetting that trouble held aces, too. And wore a poker face of danger,” he evokes Robert Burns’ famous quotation, “The best laid schemes of mice and men go oft awry,” albeit with a hardboiled twist. Noir anti-heroes try to beat the house at its own games. That’s why they are “heroic.” Of course, they can never win, because the house always wins. That explains the “anti.”

Ed Gorman first recommended this book to me, and his review really captures the fury and spirit of the book: “If you want a feel for the real Fifties in the form of a grim caper novel, this is your book. It's tight, deftly plotted and one of those hardboiled novels that is genuinely tough without showing off. There's a sweaty post-war anger on every page.” It’s been said that noir is the flipside of the American dream, and The Captain Must Die is proof of that.

Madge, the captain’s wife, illuminates one of the main themes of the novel as she tries to justify to herself the mistakes she’s made in her life, and the unintentional cruel consequences that followed:
“Yet in this life which fled so quickly must there always be an excuse for every action labeled by frail human beings – ‘wrong?’…. It was not an argument that would stand up in open society. It would not hold up in a court of law. But it was honest.”
At times like this, Colby's writing comes across like poetry with guts.

Though he’s never achieved the fame of his fellow Gold Medalists, Colby had a fierce talent and a gift for words, and The Captain Must Die is a hell of a fine accomplishment.

For more information, check out Peter Enfantino's "Robert Colby – A Tribute" over at Mystery File.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Pulp Serenade is now on Twitter

Pulp Serenade is now on Twitter! Now I just need to figure out how to navigate it...

Drop on by and say hello.!/PulpSerenade

Catching Up with Vertigo Crime: "Noche Roja," "Rat Catcher," "Dark Rain," "The Green Woman," and "A Sickness in the Family"

Spinetingler recently announced their nominations for Best Crime Comic/Graphic Novel of 2011. Two of their nominees came from Vertigo Crime: Jon Evans and Andrea Mutti’s The Executor and Mat Johnson and Simon Gane’s Dark Rain. Both are highly recommended graphic novels. On the occasion of their nominations, Pulp Serenade is looking back at some of the recent Vertigo Crime offerings.


Noche Roja, written by Simon Oliver with art by Jason Latour, heads south of the border for a strong dose of socially conscious noir. Eleven years ago, Jack Cohen was a border cop, but something happened that made him quit and has haunted him ever since. Now he sells burglar alarms back in the US. But when he is asked to go back into Mexico to investigate the brutal murders of six young women from the maquiladoras, Jack finds himself knee-deep in the vice and corruption he tried so hard to leave behind. In his own words: “Eleven years of letting the past kick me in the balls. And it ain’t over yet.”

The horrors of Noche Roja are uncomfortably real and familiar. Political corruption and human exploitation are sad staples of daily news reports, and Noche Roja reminds us of the personal tragedies and human cost that is often obscured by cold headlines and objective reporting. Simon Oliver’s prose is unflinching and unsentimental, and the halftone-style of Jason Latour’s art mimics the texture of newspaper photos, reminding of the real-world connection of the story that lies in every panel.


Rat Catcher is another realist graphic novel in the same vein as Vertigo’s excellent The Executor (which still stands, in my opinion, as the best in their lineup thus far). The book opens in the Badlands of West Texas where an FBI safehouse is burning to the ground. A key witness in a federal case lay dead in the house, the latest in a series of assassinations attributed to the mythical “Rat Catcher.” Stumbling out of the flames is a man with a bullet hole through his shoulder. He’s the only one that knows the whole story, and Special Agent Moses Burdon won’t give up until he’s caught the mysterious survivor.

Author Andy Diggle and artist Victor Ibanez have crafted a blistering thriller as ruthless as the desert sun. Rat Catcher has the pacing of a top-notch action movie and explosions and shoot-outs to rival anything on the modern screen. If any of the Vertigo Crime titles should make it to Hollywood, Rat Catcher gets my vote.


Written by Mat Johnson with artwork by Simon Gane, Dark Rain is a post-Katrina story of crime and redemption. Dabny Arceneaux used to be a customs officer and Emmit Jack used to be a bank clerk. They both got caught with their hands in the till and were sent to prison where they were cell mates. Now that they’re out of jail, they’ve got no hopes for employment. But when Katrina strikes New Orleans, the pair see an opportunity to get revenge and get rich.

Simon Gane’s artwork is boldly stylized in blue and grey, washing out the color boundaries between the characters and drowning them in the same river of human tragedy. Mat Johnson’s story skillfully balances an exciting heist story with a moving, compassionate portrait of the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina. Amidst such harrowing circumstances, Johnson and Gane show both the worst and best aspects of people. As Dabny says, “We can do the wrong thing. But at least we can try and do it for the right reasons.” Morality is rarely black and white. Such ambiguity is perceptively captured by the writing and art of Dark Rain.


Peter Straub and Michael Easton’s The Green Woman features radiant artwork by John Bolton. The story belongs to the world of Straub’s “Blue Rose Trilogy,” which includes Koko (1988), Mystery (1990) and The Throat (1993). Not having read those, The Green Woman was very disorienting for me to read. Perhaps fans of Straub’s would find more of interest in its story about a serial killer hiding out in a haunted tavern and the cop that is tracking him down.


Denise Mina's A Sickness in the Family, with art by Antonio Fuso, is a macabre family portrait as grisly as it is funny. The Ushers comes into a large sum of money after the sale of the family business. As greed starts to corrupt everyone fantasies, family members begin dying in uncannily violent ways. Among the most original and distinctive books in the Vertigo Crime family, A Sickness in the Family delights in exploring the darkest recesses of the Usher household, and its story goes in many surprising directions.

Gordon Harries, over at Needle Scratch Static, wrote a terrific review of A Sickness in the Family: “Denise Mina and Antonio Fuso’s neo-gothic is, for my money, the best graphic novel that Vertigo Crime has yet published. It is dark, violent, funny, profane and profound about the psychological hinterlands that our families tend to occupy. Not only will it, as Greg Rucka promises in his blurb ‘leave you walking with its echoes for days to come,’ you’ll find yourself marveling over a clever (seemingly throwaway) line of dialogue and re-assessing the book’s content every time you think of its ending. It’s that good.”
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