Neal Pollock on Richard Stark's Parker Novels at LARB

Over at the Los Angeles Review of Books, Neal Pollock has a great piece about the Parker novels, written by Richard Stark (Donald E. Westlake).
In a world ruled by weak bureaucrats and populated by scared alcoholics who eat at cheap diners, Parker is an existential anti-hero, an underground man almost wholly driven by self-interest who hates hippies and mobsters equally. He kills without mercy, though never without reason, and he seems to live almost entirely in the moment. “He was impersonal, not cruel,” Westlake writes. Westlake has called his Parker novels portraits of a “man at work,” and it’s true that Parker is better at his job than you’d ever hope to be at yours. Things often go to shit, but it’s never his fault.
Read the full piece here!

"Edwin of the Iron Shoes" by Marcia Muller (1977)

“I don’t like being badgered by little girls playing detective.” He stood up.

Harmon was hiding something from me, and not very skillfully either. I took what seemed like a big risk and remained sitting. “I’m not playing, Mr. Harmon. This is for real.”

Marcia Muller first introduced her series PI Sharon McCone to the world in 1977. The book was Edwin of the Iron Shoes. Since then McCone has gone on to appear in 28 novels and numerous short stories, and her creator has won numerous awards, including the Eye Award for Lifetime Achievement from the Private Eye Writers of America. Muller’s latest Sharon McCone mystery, City of Whispers, is set to be published October 26 by Grand Central Publishing. In preparation for that, I decided to go back to the very first McCone case and catch up.

In Edwin of the Iron Shoes, Sharon McCone is a late-twentysomething investigator for All Souls Cooperative legal services. She had been assigned to look into a series of arson and vandalism attacks on a group of antique and junk stores on Salem Street in San Francisco, but was unable to find who was at the bottom of it. But now that one of the shop owners, Joan Albritton, has been murdered, McCone is back on the case.

As she narrows her suspects, McCone’s investigation leads her in several directions. First, there are the developers, like Cara Ingall, who had failed to buy out the Shelter Street shops and build condos—would they be desperate enough to force out the current tenants, even if it meant murder? Then there are Joan’s neighbors, such as Charlie Cornish, a junk dealer and Joan’s sometime lover—but is business bad enough to turn them from compatriots into competition? Oliver van Osten, Joan’s antique dealer, seems suspiciously willing to lend a helping hand, nor does McCone trust Ben Harmon, the bail bondsman who helped Joan’s deceased grandson when he was in trouble. If that wasn’t enough, McCone has to contend with Police Lieutenant Gregory Marcus, who at times seems to be her adversary and at others her would-be paramour.

My first step into the world of Sharon McCone was very positive, and I’ve already ordered more of the series to read next. I was really drawn into the setting of late 1970s San Francisco, and its specific culture and politics that become so central to the plot. At the heart of the mystery are issues of urban renewal and gentrification, topics that are still highly relevant today. Barry Jenkins’ 2008 indie romance Medicine for Melancholy (no relation to the Bradbury story) even touches on similar issues surround modern-day San Francisco. Muller also did an excellent job exploring the intricacies and duplicities of the antique trade, and using those elements to create a unique and atmospheric plot.

The biggest strength of Edwin of the Iron Shoes, though, is its protagonist: Sharon McCone. She’s tough, smart, and very likable, but most important she is also realistic and relatable. When McCone gets into scrapes, she’s certainly capable of taking care of herself, but she’s no superhero. She allows us to witness her trepidation as she waits in her car while a drunk stumbles past late one night. Could she take him in a fight? Maybe. Could he be faking and carrying a knife instead? Perhaps. You never know what will happen in a big city in a dark alley, and McCone isn’t stupid. She’s realistic. She knows the dangers, and she’s prepared—not just physically, but intellectually. McCone also seems like an actual late-twentysomething who is just starting her career: her apartment isn’t nice, and she lives off of cookies, bagels, and chocolate bars. Little touches such as these give McCone that necessary third-dimension to make her stand out from the archetypical private eye.

Edwin of the Iron Shoes was Marcia Muller’s first published novel, but from the confidence and clarity of her prose, the maturity of her characters, and the smoothness of her plot, you’d never guess it. It’s an assured and impressive debut, and I am greatly looking forward to catching up with the rest of Marcia Muller’s bibliography soon.

"The Strike" by Charles Williams (Cosmopolitan, Jan. 1954)

“Then, last evening, paradise had caved in.”

Charles Williams is best known as one of the top tier noir novelists of the 1950s and 1960s, having published classics for Gold Medal like The Long Saturday Night, but he was also a short story writer. “The Strike” originally appeared in the January 1954 issue of Cosmopolitan. In contrast to Williams’ novels that I’ve read, “The Strike” is strikingly different. While it’s not noir, it’s not quite not “not noir,” either. Williams begins with a quintessential domestic scene that could have started any number of noir stories—an evening at home between a fed-up wife and her neglectful husband—and then gives it an unexpected twist.

All Mr. Courtney cares about tonight is his No. 12 Hendrickson fishing tackle. While he dreams of the trout he’ll be able to catch with it, across the room Mrs. Henderson is tired of reading the paper to herself. After several failed attempts at starting a conversation, she’s decided she’s had enough and is going to do something about it.

“What about my uranium?”

That sure got his attention!

I won’t give away any spoilers, but the story takes some surprising, and very enjoyable, turns. Williams’ superb craftsmanship shows in his tonal dexterity, economic wordplay, and ability to switch moods at the drop of a dime. Alternately tense and comical, “The Strike” is a finely spun tale, and features excellent illustrations from Alex Ross, a regular artist in Cosmopolitan from the 1940s through the 1960s.

Download “The Strike” here from Scribd.

Ken Bruen on Words and Writing

“There'll be times when the only refuge is books. Then you'll read as if you meant it, as if your life depended on it.”
--Ken Bruen, The Killing of the Tinkers

"London Boulevard" Movie Review

“I was a criminal. Presently, I’m just unemployed.” So explains recently released ex-con Mitchel, played by Colin Farrell in the movie adaptation of Ken Bruen’s London Boulevard. The movie, written and directed by William Monahan (writer of The Departed), is hitting theaters later this year, but for the time being you can rent it online via Amazon for ten bucks. Unless you are a die-hard Ken Bruen fan, however, you might want to hold off. Maybe my hopes were too high, but London Boulevard was overall a disappointing movie.

The story is about Mitchel (Farrell), who was arrested several years ago for killing a man. Now that he’s out of jail, his old gangster connections want him back in the business, but Mitchel doesn’t want to go down that path again. Instead, he takes a job as a handyman/bodyguard for high-profile actress/painter Charlotte (Keira Knightley), who is being hounded by paparazzi. Big-shot gangster Gant (Ray Winstone), however, won’t let Mitchel out of the business that easily, and soon he begins threatening those closest to Mitchel. As much as Mitchel would like to walk away, he is caught not only because of his growing affection for Charlotte, but also the gnawing desire to find the young punks who killed an old friend of his and exact vengeance.

London Boulevard is an awkward movie. It tries to marry an unconventional narrative (without a central, driving mystery or satisfying closure) with more mainstream stylistic tendencies. Not having read the original book, I can’t comment on how faithful or not the movie is, but on the whole the movie lacks the brutal charm, intelligent wit, and aesthetic grace that one finds in all of Bruen’s writing. It’s like Monahan wanted to take Bruen’s black-and-blue-and-boozy world and give it blockbuster appeal. The resulting movie is too slick and not gritty enough. It's noir lite.

Ray Winstone, as expected, is great fun as the big, bad gangster. And even though Keira Knightley and Colin Farrell surprised me with low-key performances that were at times decent, ultimately they were inconsistent and not always in-tune with the rest of the movie. Farrell’s pretty-boy looks soften his character and he doesn’t quite reconcile the sensitive, Rilke-quoting part of his character with the brutal gangster façade. Knightley’s character, Charlotte, gives a speech about how she doesn’t like acting in most movies because she is either a sex object, or just a sponge that soaks her up male co-stars’ brooding backstory. That’s all well and good, and Charlotte’s character certainly avoids being either of those stereotypes…but her role never coalesces into anything that feels real, and her romance with Mitchel is a little too sweet and naïve for my tastes.

Some reviewers online were complaining about the lack of plot resolution and character redemption. Clearly they haven’t read Bruen’s work before. He’s not interested in such stock conclusions or easy answers, and I’m glad that Monahan at least tried something similar with his movie, even if it doesn’t work. Emotionally, he doesn't pull it off, and in terms of pacing, everything concludes a bit too quickly. Perhaps had Monahan showed more of the violence without flinching or cutting away right before the blood splatters, the nihilistic turn at the end might have carried more weight. As is, the final scene seems more like a punch line rather than the gut-punch it should.

Even though it wasn’t very good, I still was able to enjoy parts of London Boulevard. The story premise is solid, and Ray Winstone is always fun to watch, but this is far from the perfect cinematic evocation of Ken Bruen that we’ve been waiting for. Blitz (which I will review later this week) is a much better movie, and hopefully there will be even more adaptations in the future that will continue to improve.

Max Allan Collins' Favorite Detective Novels

Over at Flavorwire, Max Allan Collins (The Consummata, Quarry's Ex) talks about ten of his favorite detective novels.
"I could have chosen any one of several dozen Perry Mason novels for this list, but The Case of the Moth-Eaten Mink was my first Mason and the wonderfully alliterative title still makes me smile. The books are much tougher than given credit for, and the cases always hinge on sex, greed or both. The dialogue crackles and no one ever wrote better courtroom scenes than lawyer Gardner." --Max Allan Collins

Read the whole list here.

In Search of David Goodis' "The Burglar"

Over at Shooting Pool with David Goodis, Aaron Finestone takes a visit to Atlantic City in search of remaining traces of one of Goodis' masterpieces, The Burglar. Head on over to Aaron's site to read about his journey and see photographs of the places he visited.

Louis L'Amour on Words and Writing

Excerpted from "The West Lives On in Louis L'Amour" by John Riley, from the Los Angeles Times, Oct 19, 1975.
He [Louis L'Amour] writes three or four books a year. Every morning at the breakfast table he reads the classics to his wife, Kathy, an ex-actress, and his son, Beau, 14, and daughter, Angelique, 11. The rest of the day he reads western nonfiction from a huge collection of journals and periodicals and histories. And he writes. He seldom researches any one book specifically. He has set himself the goal of swallowing the West whole and regurgitating it as one long, linked masterwork. Currently, his project is a 40-volume cycle showing three families, the Chantrys, Sacketts and Talons. The hero of "The Man From the Broken Hills" is half Talon, half Sackett. Ten of the three-family cycle are complete.

The most important elements of L'Amour's books are the setting, the terrain, the atmosphere. It is his most important character.

"The terrain is always an important factor," he says. "In those days, you couldn't go form here to Phoenix without worrying about where you could get a drink and where you'd camp tonight. And where the Indians might ambush. I always write about real places. I go to a great deal of trouble to find about that place."

"Nothing begins here," he says. "Always in the past writers seemed to write about The West in capitals as a place in limbo, a kind of never-never land where things happened that had no relationship to the rest of the world at all. Well, I don't like that at all. People were coming and going from the West. There was a man named Oliver Wallop who ranched up in Wyoming for 30 years and then went back to England and took a seat in the House of Lords. Men came in and went out contributing and taking from it. Like Teddy Roosevelt coming West a sick man and going back East healthy with the western spirit in him."

"Doomsday Mesa" by Chap O'Keefe

Originally published as a Black Horse Western in 1995, Chap O’Keefe’s Doomsday Mesa has long been out of print. Thanks to the e-book revolution, it is now available for Kindle. I greatly enjoyed the first Chap O’Keefe book I read, Misfit Lil Cheats the Hangrope, so I was excited going into Doomsday Mesa. It certainly lived up to my high hopes, but it also showed a different side of O’Keefe. From the opening pages, Misfit Lil Cheats the Hangrope was laced with action, humor, and mystery. Doomsday Mesa shows a darker side of the West. It’s not a pretty picture, but neither was life in the old West. O’Keefe mixes the bitter truths of Western history (the Donner party cannibalism tragedy and the Sand Creek Massacre) with a compelling fictional narrative, and the result is another winning Western drama from veteran author O’Keefe.

The protagonist of Doomsday Mesa is Yale Cannon. Once a wild, gun-toting youth, he matured while fighting for the Union in the Civil War and was eventually appointed as a Deputy Marshall. He may be older, wiser, and grayer, but he hasn’t forgotten his youth—or the girl he loved, Jane Bell. So, when he is ordered to proceed to Antelope to bring back wanted murderer William Effingham, he decides to find out what happened to his old crush. But the town of Antelope has other plans in mind for the Deputy Marshal.

Arriving in Antelope, Cannon is mistaken for a cattle rustler cultist and narrowly escapes a showdown. Investigating the matter further, Cannon discovers the town’s boiling resentment towards Brother Abel Anson Pryor and his followers who have taken over Jerusalem Pastures, which the locals are now calling Doomsday Mesa. Meanwhile, Cannon seeks out the town elder, Reverend Ephraim McDowell, and his daughter, schoolteacher Kate, to learn about Jane Bell. Disaster looms, however, as tensions between the townspeople and the cult reach the breaking point, and Cannon finds himself caught between two firecrackers—Effingham and Pryor—and must save Kate’s reckless younger sister, Rose, before she becomes victim to her own naïve delusions.

Doomsday Mesa is a lean book written in tough, compact prose that packs in a lot of drama in short space. Don’t let the size of the novel fool you—O’Keefe has assembled a terrific ensemble cast whose individual stories weave together a complex narrative layered with drama and anticipation.

As with the Misfit Lil books, O’Keefe excels at crafting rugged, independent, and believable female characters that defy stereotype. Kate doesn’t fit the conventional mould of a schoolmarm whose spinster ways melt at the first sight of the hero. Far from it! Kate is a forthright suffragette, and even occupies a position as one of the town’s leaders, but she’s also cognizant of the weight of her responsibilities, both to the town and to her near-blind father, whom she looks after. And of all the characters in the book, Rose is perhaps the most relatable, human, and vulnerable of the bunch. Young, brash, and a romantic at heart, she longs to run away with her lover and rebels against everything her family stands for. How many of us were like that in our own youth? Locating those universal emotions in his characters is what makes O’Keefe’s West so compelling and relatable. He doesn’t treat the West as some static, dusty entity, but engages with the emotional and moral issues the way real people would have.

Doomsday Mesa is a good way to get to know O’Keefe, and now’s the perfect time, as Gary Dobbs over at The Tainted Archive is offering a 2-for-1 promo deal with O’Keefe’s eBooks. See his blog for official details.

Here are some of my favorite quotes from Doomsday Mesa:

“Cannon was merciless. His first shot took one of the gunnies in the leg. He was jerked off his feet, blood bubbling from a shattered kneecap. Flung raglike to the ground, he writhed and mewled helplessly, churning the dust to a chocolate mud beneath his broken limb.”

“Few windows still held glass. They were just black holes in moon-silvered timber siding. ‘Like empty eye sockets,’ said Rose.”

“Atop the rim was a big mesa, covering many thousand acres. Part of it was grassland, but the lately titled Jerusalem Pastures did not live up to the promise of their name. The tableland was poor farming land. Nature had been in a mean mood when she fashioned this rocky section. The mesa was riven by deep, treacherous canyons – and it had not been improved by the scars of more abortive mine workings.”

“Cannon barged past him. Though the crashing of guns had ceased, a wild sound of arguing voices swelled from the saloon. The whole building seemed crouched like a wounded dog cringing in the shadows at the side of Main Street, growling and gathering itself up for another frantic leap into gut-ripping violence.”

"The Consummata" by Mickey Spillane and Max Allan Collins (Hard Case Crime, 2011)

“Baby, I wasn’t made for this world.”

“Possibly it wasn’t made for you either.”

Forty-four years after he was first introduced to the world in 1967’s The Delta Factor, Mickey Spillane’s one-off character Morgan the Raider makes an encore performance in The Consummata (now available a paperback or ebook). Unfinished at the time of Spillane’s death, The Consummata is the fifth book to be completed by the author’s long-time friend and collaborator, Max Allan Collins, and the second to be published by Hard Case Crime (the other being the excellent Dead Street). In all of the Spillane/Collins books that I’ve read, it’s been impossible to pick the point at which one author’s work ends and the other’s begins. It’s a seamless melding of voices and ideas.

Not being familiar with The Delta Factor, the first couple of chapters of The Consummata was a bit rocky for me. Spillane/Collins had a lot of backstory to convey, but once all the bases were covered the pacing picked up and didn’t slow until the last corpse fell.

Morgan the Raider is a modern-day pirate, but he steals only from governments, gangsters, and other sources whose wealth comes from corrupt means. As the book begins, Morgan is running through Miami’s Cuban neighborhood, being chased by CIA agents who think he stole $40 from the US Government. Coming to Morgan’s rescue are a group of Cuban immigrants who have heard about Morgan’s reputation and want to hire him to locate Jaimie Halaquez, a double agent for Castro and the CIA who ran off with $75,000 intended to help fellow Cuban exiles. The only clue as to Helaquez’s whereabouts is his proclivity for S&M. But with rumors of an elite party thrown by high-priestess of bondage with spy connections back to WWII—The Consummata—Morgan knows Helaquez will show his head eventually…now he just has to stay out of the CIA’s clutches long enough to get his man.

Compared to Spillane’s more famous protagonist, Mike Hammer, Morgan isn’t quite as prone to violence. But while there might not be any punks bubbling on the floor or brains splattered against walls, Morgan does perform one Spillane/Collins’ most humorous executions: death by toilet swirly. And when it comes to his libido, Morgan also shows a bit more restraint. Overall, Morgan is more moderate than Hammer, which for some readers might be more appealing. Personally, I prefer the extremity of Hammer’s personality. Still, Morgan has that irresistible macho charm—he’s good in a fight, better in bed, and capable of tackling any adversary, whether government, gangster, or your garden variety goon. He’s the male action fantasy writ large—just not quite as large as Hammer.

Morgan’s adventure leads him from Cuban mom & pop grocery stores and seedy, bombed-out hotels to labyrinthine brothels and out-of-this-world sex parties. It’s a doozy of a thriller and a helluva lot of fun to read. Thanks to Max Allan Collins for making sure Spillane’s legacy carries on with such strong volumes.

And I couldn’t end the review without mentioning Robert McGinnis’ exquisite cover. Wowzers! And I don’t just mean the lean limbed babe with the gun, either. The wallpaper, couch, and whole décor is beautifully designed. Just when you think Hard Case has released their best cover, they top themselves yet again.

Here are some of my favorite quotes from The Consummata:

“The Cuban kitten was rising and turning and leaning against the wall with her hands flat against the tile, glancing back at me with sultry insistent invitation, offering the rounded cheeks of the most perfect posterior that fool Castro ever banished form his country.”

“That Muddy was having a piece of pie did not surprise me. That he could eat that way, and carry all that weight around, and still find clothes that looked baggy on him, remained a mystery.”

And this well-crafted gem which almost reads like verse:


“You can’t buy it. And you can’t avoid it. It finds you, and does its capricious thing, a coin flip coming up tails and giving you the bad luck of getting clipped by that coke freak, only to come up heads and let you survive, with just a minor concussion, cuts, abrasions, and a couple broken ribs. No internal injuries at all.


John D. MacDonald on Words and Writing (2)

Recently, I came across an in-depth article on John D. MacDonald from around the time of the movie adaptation of Darker Than Amber. "The man who writes those Travis McGee stories: A look at John D. MacDonald" was written by Mike Baxter and was published in The Washington Post Times Herald on Feb 1, 1970. It was a fairly lengthy article, but below are excerpts of some of the most insightful parts:
[Mickey] Spillane visits [John D.] MacDonald's home at intervals, and both write mysteries. As craftsmen, however, they are as close as Eldridge Cleaver and Sam Spade. Even Spillane can recognize the gulf. "I am a writer; you are an author," The Mick once told MacDonald. There is more in that than semantic nonsense.

MacDonald writes on a beige IBM Selectric as if Doom were about to unplug it in the last great denouement…He devotes a business-like seven-to-nine hours a day writing, doing it until the lunch hour, then doing it again until the cocktail hour. Fast subtraction shows that this leaves "too little time, dammit" for other pursuits.


MacDonald can pension McGee off without affecting his workload. While completing McGee No. 12, he is working on three other novels in his unorthodox way, moving from one to another at the first outbreak of boredom.

He writes without outlining, weaving intricate plots and large casts into the empty middle separating a known beginning and a known climax.

He writes on expensive 25-pound bond paper. "I think the same situation is involved as with painting and sculpture. If you use the best materials you can afford, somehow you have more respect for what you do to it."

He seldom edits with pencil. "I rewrite by throwing away a page, a chapter, half a book, or go right back to the beginning and start again."

He is also a happy writer, another unorthodoxy. "I enjoy the hell out of writing," he said, "because of the rare times when it really works good. It's like an East egg hunt. Here's 50 pages, and you say, 'Oh, Christ, where is it?' Then on the 51st page, it'll work. Just the way you wanted it to, a little better than anything in that same area ever worked before. You say 'Wow! This is worth the price of admission'."

"Dead Dolls Don't Talk / Hunt the Killer / Too Hot to Hold" by Day Keene (Stark House, 2011)

Stark House Press returns with one of their strongest collections yet, a triple-header of 1950s noir from the incomparable Day Keene: Dead Dolls Don’t Talk, Hunt the Killer, and Too Hot to Hold. These are sweaty, grimy, relentless thrillers that capture Keene at his zenith—masterfully concocted plots, breakneck pacing, and some of the sleaziest characters you’ll find in 50s paperbacks.

The protagonists in these stories are all “average joes” —Keene’s stock-in-trade—whom fate, or coincidence, has thrown for a deadly loop, but none of them are entirely innocent. Keene’s characters are remarkably mature in their self-awareness. They know they’re philandering dirtbags and no-good heels, and they don’t pretend for a moment they’re any good. But that’s what makes them so sympathetic and, oddly enough, relatable. It’s easy to see how they’re lead down the path, and how they engineered their own doom. Coincidence and bad luck play a big role in each of the plots, but the majority of the blame likes squarely with the protagonists themselves: guys who want sex and booze so bad they’d screw up everything right with their lives just for one wild fling. We’ve all known someone like that, and that’s one of Day Keene’s formulas for success. Everyday people in everyday situations gone massively out-of-hand—our craziest dreams turned into living, breathing nightmares.

Dead Dolls Don’t Talk (Crest, 1959) follows a juror who learns the hard way what it means to find yourself on the wrong side of the law. Hours after returning a verdict of “guilty” in a murder case, Doc Hart wakes up next to the condemned man’s wife…dead wife. On the run and wanted for murder, Hart’s only friend is Gerta, the young woman from his shop whose affections he turned down in the past. Together, the two of them head to Mexico to unravel an increasingly complicated scheme that looks harder and harder to prove.

Hunt the Killer (1951, Avon)—my favorite of the bunch—is about a Florida smuggler, Charlie White, who is released from prison only to walk immediately back into the same trap that put him there. Only this time it’s not smuggling he’s wanted for, it’s murder. If only he could figure out the identity of his mysterious employer, Señor Peso, he’s sure he could prove himself innocent.

Too Hot to Hold (1959, Gold Medal) is about a dissatisfied husband whose dull life takes an unexpectedly exciting turn when he steps into a Manhattan cab one rainy morning. In the back seat is a suitcase filled with more money than he’s ever seen before. There’s no identification tag, so he’s takes it, and soon finds himself a mob target. Meanwhile, back at home things are headed for disaster as his nympho daughter threatens to make a scene if he doesn’t sleep with her, and his spiteful wife is on the warpath about his obtuse behavior.

If you’ve never checked out Keene before, this is the perfect place to start. Not only are all three books top of the line noir, but David Laurence Wilson’s meticulously researched introduction is a must read. Keene, whose real name was Gunard Hjertstedt, is one of those writers who didn’t leave too many clues about his own life behind him, and Wilson’s essay sheds light onto one of the author’s biggest mysteries—himself. Exquisite literary taste and impeccable scholarship make Stark House not only one of my favorite contemporary publishers, but also one of the most reliable out there today.

One thing you can always count on Day Keene for: killer openings. He knows how to hook a reader from line one like nobody else, and the beginning paragraphs to each of these three novels are some of his best. Take a look and if you like what you read, check out Stark House Press’ website for more information.

From Dead Dolls Don’t Talk:
“There was no boy and girl business about it. Both of them knew what they were doing. It was a thoroughly adult and sordid affair involving proven lewd and licentious conduct, resulting, so the State alleged, in murder:

"The man’s name was Harry L. Cotton. He had been a professional aerial crop duster. He was big. He was young. He had a way with women.”

From Hunt the Killer:
“It was hot. It was dark. The cell block smelled of men sleeping with dreams. Men without women for years. Of fear and despair and frustration. Night after night, alone. Three walls, a high window, iron bars. A hard, narrow cot—and you. With disinfectant replacing affection. A small squirrel in a big cage. Staring hot-eyed into the dark. Wanting a drink. Wanting a woman. Trying not to blow your top. Hysteria building up inside you.”

From Too Hot to Hold:
“Although his actual physical death didn’t take place until two days later, Mike Scaffidi began to die the moment he picked up a fare in front of Grand Central Station at exactly 9:25 on the morning of November 3, 1958.”

Jack Taylor's Movie Collection

Ever wonder what movie you'd watch if Jack Taylor invited you over? One of my favorite parts of Ken Bruen's The Guards was the description of Jack Taylor's video collection. I gotta admit, Jack has pretty impeccable taste when it comes to film. Like Taylor himself, these films are suffused with doom and darkness, but also poetry. They're not all that cheery, but then again, neither is Jack. Still, I could go for any one of these any night of the week.
When I came to, my hangover had abated. Not gone but definitely not howling. After a shower an an oh so careful shave, I headed for my video shelf. It's sparse but has my very essentials:

Paris, Texas
Once Upon a time in the West
Sunset Boulevard
Double Indemnity
Cutter's Way
Dog Soldiers [Who'll Stop the Rain]

"Bad Moon Rising" by Ed Gorman (Pegasus Books, 2011)

Ed Gorman’s small-town private eye/lawyer Sam McCain makes a welcome return in Bad Moon Rising, the 9th novel in the series. It’s another knockout mystery from Gorman, with the right balance of suspense, characterization, and humor.

For those new to the series, the San McCain saga begins in the late 1950s and is now up to 1968. The books are set in Black River Falls, Iowa, where McCain is a young lawyer and licensed P.I. whose liberal politics, nonconformist spirit, and tendency to represent outcasts, underdogs, and other less-favorable citizens, has marked him as persona non grata in the eyes of the community. But McCain has grown to the point that he doesn’t care much what people think of him. He sees through the phony social and political facades to see what is really happening beneath the surface: injustice, racism, sexism, domestic violence, hypocrisy, oppression, ignorance. But like Bartleby before him, McCain would prefer not to be a part of that society, and would rather read his Gold Medal paperbacks and listen to Buddy Holly. McCain would be bitter before his time if it weren’t for his deep compassion for the imperfect and morally corrupt world around him. He understands the limits of human strength, the depth of suffering, and the horrible things that people do to one another, whether deliberately, accidentally, or just stupidly. That mixture of sympathy, outrage, resignation, and humility is the touchtone of Gorman’s world, and watching those ideas grow in McCain over the past nine books has been one of the great pleasures of the series.

Bad Moon Rising finds McCain coming to the defense of a hippie commune on the outskirts of town. The law has just been waiting for an excuse to kick them out of Black River Falls, and it just might have found the perfect excuse to shut the party down permanently. The body of young Vanessa Mainwaring, daughter of a local and exceedingly wealthy war profiteer, was discovered in the commune’s barn. The fingers point to her ex-boyfriend, a mentally unstable Vietnam vet named Neil Cameron. McCain is ready to come to Cameron’s defense, until Cameron saps him over the head and takes it on the lam. Everyone in town says it is an open-and-shut case, but McCain refuses to give in to popular opinion. But as he gets deeper into the case, McCain doesn’t like the hidden sides of society that he uncovers, and he begins to doubt his own convictions.

One of my favorite parts about the McCain series is Gorman’s cultural insight. The McCain books are some of the best-written portrayals of the complexities of small-town America, like Winesburg, Ohio with a noir twist. This isn’t a nostalgic view of the good old days. Gorman’s 1950s and 1960s are as politically diverse and socially complex as today. Even though it is a small town, the crimes are anything but quaint. Gorman reveals the dark undercurrents, seething anger, and boiled-up oppression of mid-century Middle America. There might not be any fedoras or rain-slicked dark alleys, but Gorman’s world is 100% noir. His work embodies the compromised decisions characters have to make in order to survive in a compromised world. And because the McCain series is grounded so thoroughly in realism, McCain and the rest of Black River Falls have to live with the consequences of their actions. There’s a steady history of regret, pain, embarrassment, and resentment running through the McCain books. I don’t want to downplay how fun they are to read—because they’re compulsively entertaining and endearingly familiar to our own lives, families and communities—but there’s a darkness to the books that haunts one long after the story has ended.

If you haven’t checked out the Sam McCain series yet, Black River Falls is a great place to start, and will be released by Pegasus Books on October 12th both as a hardcover and ebook. If you’d rather start at the beginning—and by all means, the series has a terrific opener—then check out The Day the Music Died, which was recently brought back into print by Ramble House.

"Test Tube Baby" by Sam Fuller (1936)

Test Tube Baby is the second novel from Samuel Fuller (here credited as “Sam Fuller”). Published in 1936 by Godwin, Publishers, it is among...